Although they are not native to the British Isles, around 200 water pipits (Anthus spinoletta) spend winter in the UK each year. These marsh-loving birds arrive from October onwards from their breeding grounds in mountainous land in central and southern Europe, settling for up to six months on British wetlands.
Water pipits have brownish-grey upperparts and buff underparts. It has dark, streaky markings on its breast and its tail is dark grey, lined with white. Water pipits have a pale stripe over their eye, dark legs and a long, slender yellowish-grey bill.
During the breeding season, these markings are more defined, with the head more grey than brown. After the breeding season, water pipits undergo a moult, when their plumage becomes browner and more streaked, and their facial markings are less clear.
Female water pipits are similar in appearance to males and there are no major differences between the sexes in plumage or size. However, females sometimes have a greyer head.
Young water pipits resemble non-breeding adults, but are darker and their plumage is distinctly more streaked, particularly on the underparts.
Among the pipit and wagtail family, water pipits are considered large, stocky birds. Males and females are roughly the same size and weight.
Close up of a adult Water Pipit on the ground
The song of a water pipit can be heard both in flight and from a perch, and lasts between 9 and 12 seconds, consisting of four or five different bursts, including rattling and tinkling sounds.
Most of a water pipit’s diet is made up of invertebrates, including crickets, grasshoppers, lacewings, cicadas, sawflies, moths, butterflies and caterpillars. Snails, worms and millipedes are also eaten.
Later in the summer, berries, algae and seeds may also be eaten, with some research showing that by late summer, algae represented around a 75 percent share of a water pipit’s diet.
Young water pipits are brought larvae and other insects to eat by their parents, and as they mature, will progress onto being fed whole invertebrates. In the early stages, slower-moving insects are offered, so the hatchlings develop the ability to practise catching their own prey.
Water Pipits mainly consume invertebrates - perched Water Pipit with an insect in its beak
Natural breeding habitats of water pipits include the mountainous landscapes of central and southern Europe, where they are found on slopes with heather or short grass, wet meadows and streams above the treeline. They live at altitudes of between 615 m and 3,150 m (2020 ft to 10,350 ft).
Marshlands, grassy lake shores, lagoons, and irrigated farmlands offer a suitable winter habitat for visiting water pipits.
The summer breeding range of water pipit extends across the mountain ranges of central and southern Europe, and spreads eastwards across Central Asia, as far as China.
From late September onwards, water pipits head to their winter territories, which are found in western and southern Europe and into northwest Africa.
Water pipits are found in mountain ranges across central Europe and Asia, where they live in upland meadows scattered with rocks and thicket patches.
Winter visitors arrive on UK shores from October onwards, and have been sighted in Norfolk, Cornwall, Dorset, Merseyside, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Surrey and Lincolnshire among other places.
Water Pipit drinking water from the ground
Water pipits are rare visitors to the UK during winter months and do not breed in the country.
Only around 200 birds overwinter in England, largely observed in southern and eastern regions, but also occasionally recorded in Wales and southern Scotland. With such a small visiting population, a sighting would be considered extremely uncommon.
Between October and April, small numbers of visiting water pipits take up temporary residence at marshlands, with most sightings in eastern and southern England. The Wild Ken Hill rewilding project in Norfolk reported 14 overwintering water pipits in 2021.
Water Pipits are generally spotted in the UK between October and April, however, they are pretty rare
There is not much data available on the typical lifespan of a wild water pipit, but based on similar species that we know more about, it’s estimated to be between 2 and 5 years. The oldest individual water pipit, a ringed bird, reached 8 years 8 months.
In their breeding range, Eleonora’s falcons are among the main species that prey on adult water pipits, while their nests are targeted by a number of predators, in particular stoats, snakes, long-tailed weasels and deer mice.
Visiting water pipits are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. Any deliberate attempt to kill, injure or capture a water pipit is an offence punishable by law.
The official IUCN status of water pipits is ‘least concern’ as their population across their breeding range is stable. However, in the UK, they are classified with Amber conservation status, meaning they have been designated as a species of moderate concern.
Front view of a Water Pipit
A cup-like nest is constructed at ground level, and hidden from view by vegetation, or tucked into a crevice in a cliff. Nests are made from grass stems, moss and leaves and lined with softer materials, including hair or fur.
Water pipits’ eggs are speckled grey-white, and measure around 21 mm by 16 mm (0.8 in by 0.6 in), weighing 2.7 g (0.1 oz).
A typical clutch contains between four and six eggs, which are incubated by the female for 14 to 15 days.
Fledging takes place after a further 14 to 15 days, by which point young water pipits have not mastered flight and continue to rely on their parents for food.
Water pipits are monogamous while they are raising young; however, a different mate may be chosen if a second brood is attempted in the same breeding season.
A later pair bond may extend into the winter, although no data is available to show whether this continues after migration.
Recently fledged Water Pipit chick waiting to be fed
Observations of water pipits in the UK note that they show aggression to other similar species that may be present on their wintering grounds, including meadow pipits and pied wagtails.
They are also noted to be especially cautious around humans, making study and identification at close range particularly tricky.
The water pipits that visit the UK each winter are migrants that breed in rocky upland meadows across western and central Europe. Migration from the Alps begins from October onwards, with overwintering visitors departing from Britain by early April.
Family:Pipits and wagtails
15cm to 17cm
22.5cm to 28cm
18.7g to 23g
This colourful, regular, ground nesting summer visitor breeds throughout Europe, many overwintering across the vast plains of Africa.
Known for their swirling courtship flight and trilled song, Tree Pipits are summer visitors to parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, arriving from wintering grounds in Africa each spring, and establishing breeding territories on the edges of woodlands, heaths and moorlands.
Rock pipits are year-round residents at sites around much of the UKs coastline, and can be seen foraging on rocky shores for snails and crustaceans. Its mainly a ground-dwelling bird, with a distinctive bobbing run, as it forages for snails on stony seashores.
The Pied Wagtail is a small songbird with a befitting name. These busy birds are just as at home in our towns and cities as they are amongst wading birds along the shorelines of ponds and wetlands.
The meadow pipit is a small, long tailed passerine of the genus Anthus, which is made up of 42 separate species of pipit. Pipits and Wagtails share the same family with species found worldwide bar Antarctica. The meadow pipit is a bird favouring open countryside regions and is found throughout Europe and areas of southwestern Asia.
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