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A tale of two pipits (wait, what’s a pipit?)

One of the purposes of doing this blog is to hopefully expose a few people to new things about Nebraska’s birds and birding.  On Thursday morning last week, Lauren Dinan and I made a trek, a pilgrimage if you don’t mind a little bit of hyperbole, to Audubon’s Spring Creek Prairie near Denton.  This was a no nonsense trip seeking one thing……to find the elusive Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii).  Not only were our efforts rewarded with a Sprague’s, but we also saw six Greater Prairie-Chickens and enjoyed a beautiful morning.  In addition to the Sprague’s, I have frequently observed American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) over the last week or so just a few miles from Spring Creek Prairie at Pawnee Lake SRA.    I would venture to guess, however, that quite a few people may not even know what a pipit is or what one looks like.  Perhaps when first seeing this word you were thinking about something used back in chemistry class (pippette), but that is not the case.  Thus, this is a convenient opportunity to introduce you to North America’s two pipit species, which appear similar but have different life histories.  Both pipit species migrate through Nebraska each spring and fall, but use different habitats.  Based on experience, they can be observed in different habitats a few miles from one another on the same October morning.

Audubon's Spring Creek Prairie
Audubon’s Spring Creek Prairie on a mid-October morning. Not too shabby!

Pipits are plain-looking, ground-dwelling songbirds that inhabit open areas.  Some may liken them to larks or sparrows.  Pipits have thin bills, unlike sparrows.     As mentioned above, Sprague’s and American Pipit’s appearance is similar, but they are different birds.   Sprague’s Pipit breed in shortgrass prairie in in the northern Great Plains (e.g., North Dakota, Montana, southern Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan) and winter in Texas and Mexico (see range map).   Nebraska is right between breeding and wintering areas and certainly a large proportion of this species’ population migrates through the state.  At least that is the conventional wisdom, but Sprague’s Pipit are elusive and essentially a “stealth” migrant.   Over the past decade or so, birders have figured out reliable locations to find this species and Spring Creek Prairie is one of those sites.  Rather than occurring in thick dense grass, Sprague’s prefer relatively short stuff during migration, such as the mowed service road at Spring Creek Prairie.

Sprague's Pipit habitat
Sprague’s Pipit habitat at Spring Creek Prairie
Sprague's Pipit
The elusive Sprague’s Pipit at Spring Creek Prairie.  Courtesy photo.

American Pipits breed in tundra in the high Arctic and above the treeline in the Rocky Mountains.  The species winters in the southern U.S. and Mexico (see range map).  American Pipits are more common and widespread than their relative.  The American Pipit was formerly called Water Pipit, a name which the Eurasian form kept when our form was given full species status.  Nevertheless, American Pipits often occur near water during migration.  I’ve been seeing several around Pawnee and Branched Oak Lake the last few days.   American Pipits can also often be heard flying overhead this time of year (listen to their call).

American Pipit
An American Pipit on the rocks along the dam at Pawnee Lake.  American Pipits were formerly known as Water Pipits.
American Pipit
Another look at an American Pipit observed at Pawnee Lake.  This bird was only a few miles from Spring Creek Prairie where the Sprague’s Pipit was found.
So just remember, October is pipit time in Nebraska and perhaps  you learned about two species you were formerly unfamiliar with prior to reading this post.  If you learned nothing from this post, that is good, too.

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About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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