I’ve always had some interest in taxonomy but you can’t spend ten days in Colombia with Bruce Anderson (co- author of ‘The Bird Life of Florida’) without realizing its true value in bird identification. Basically if you know the family and/or genus you have a better chance of narrowing down the bird.
Recent sightings of the American Pipit brought this home to me. Pipits are in the family ‘Motacillidae’ which includes Pipits and Wagtails. In the UK there are a number of different species of Pipits, the most common being Meadow Pipit, Tree Pipit and Water Pipit. In the Fall and Winter rarer species show up such as Tawny Pipit, Richard’s Pipit and Buff-bellied Pipit. This latter bird, the Buff-bellied Pipit, is in fact better known in the US as the American Pipit. Incidentally in the UK there are also a number of wagtails, the other half of the Motacillidae family. I have to say I miss these birds and find it puzzling that in the US there are no wagtails and only two pipits, namely the American Pipit and the Sprague’s Pipit.
Back to taxonomy. The genus name ‘anthus’ is the latin name for a small bird of grasslands, and the species name ‘rubescens’ means ‘reddish’ (from ‘ruber’ meaning ‘ruddy’). So the name means a small reddish bird of grasslands, though it is actually more buffy than reddish.
The genus has more than forty species worldwide, but they are all slender, short-necked birds with long tails, long slender legs with elongated hind claws. The bills are generally long, slender and pointed, and the wing tertials entirely cover the flight feathers when the bird is on the ground. The plumage of pipits is generally drab and brown, buff or faded white, or in the case of the American Pipit includes streaked gray/brown upper parts, diffusely streaked below on the buff breast and flanks. The drab mottled colors provide good camouflage against the soil and stones where they are generally found, making them pretty difficult to pick up at any distance with binoculars. In short, they are undistinguished looking birds.
Pipits spend most of their time on the ground, walking or running in low vegetation, but will fly to display during the breeding season and when flushed by danger. In the winter they feed in large flocks. American Pipits are very active birds, making short flights from the ground or boulders to pursue their insect prey, and poking about on the ground when looking for seeds. They constantly wag their tails up and down and from side to side. So when looking for American Pipits it is important to note the habitat, feeding behaviour and habits. It’s also handy to have a scope to be able to latch on to some of those features, like long legs, long tail, upright stance etc which are typical of the genus type, and give them a totally different look to, say, sparrows.