29 January 2014

Water Pipits at Staines Moor

It is estimated that only 190 Water Pipits spend the winter in the whole of the UK2 (a surprisingly small number I think), mostly in south-east England. The first Water Pipit recorded at Staines Moor was a single bird by the River Colne back on 3 April 19541, but with a mean maximum of nine birds wintering each year since 2000, and high counts including 13 in 2002, 15 in 2005 and a site record of an incredible 16 present in March 20031, Staines Moor has become known locally as a reliable site for these scarce continental visitors. In fact Staines Moor must surely be the premier London site for this species, and rank as one of the very best sites in Britain! I am occasionally asked where best to look on the Moor, so I thought I'd give some pointers on how to find them.

Dogs are an ever present source of disturbance at Staines Moor nowadays, so Water Pipits can often be tricky to find and getting reasonable or prolonged deck views can be frustrating to say the least. They are often seen flying over, when the best way to pick one up is by their flight call (fortunately they are often very vocal). However, they frequently associate with Meadow Pipits, so even if you do hear one you will likely to be confronted with several pipits flying over, not just one. These photos highlight the key flight features in winter plumage to help pick one out.

Winter plumage Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta (left) and Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis (right) - photographed at Staines Moor in 2013

The most striking feature of Water Pipit in flight is the very white underparts with streaking largely restricted to the breast and just faint streaking on the flanks (top left and center left). This creates a vivid contrast between the underparts and the wings, also the white vent contrasts markedly with the black under-tail. By comparison, Meadow Pipit is a pale buff below with bold streaking on the flanks clearly visible (top right and center right), creating far less contrast.

Viewed side on or from above, the wing bars are bolder on Water Pipit than on Meadow Pipit (top left and top right), and given good views the pale bold supercilium is usually visible (top left and bottom left), and much more obvious than on any well marked Meadow Pipit (top right and bottom right), and the tertials on Water Pipit also have bolder pale edges. Also, Water Pipit appears longer (they are longer tailed and longer winged than Meadow Pipit) and less dumpy then Meadow Pipit, with a slightly longer and finer bill and stronger flight.

Water Pipit, Staines Moor, 22 January 2013

For a comparison of flight calls see below.

Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus is extremely rare at Staines Moor with just two records - one on 20 October 2000 and an individual of the Scandinavian race A. p. littoralis beside the Colne on 15 Mar 20031. However, Rock Pipit occur frequently at the adjacent reservoirs and so should not be ruled out. For an excellent video on separating Rock from Water Pipit click here.

Water Pipit occur at Staines Moor from October to May (by which time they have often acquired their beautiful summer plumage). They are most frequently found foraging along the banks of the River Colne, especially between the two footbridges (also check the willows by the southern footbridge). The large vernal pool next to the swamp in the south-east corner of the site is another favoured area (where they sometimes perch up in the hawthorns), as are the channels and pools west of the Colne and the two iris channels in the north-west corner.

Map showing the areas on Staines Moor most frequently visited by Water Pipits. Water Pipits can be found anywhere
on Staines Moor (as well as on adjacent Stanwell Moor). The banks of the Colne are the most reliable place to look,
but they also feed in the channels, around the floods and in the grass, and often perch on the hawthorns (alternate
click and open in a new tab or window to enlarge).


1 Dingain, L. (2013) The Avian History of Staines Moor. Lond. Bird Rep. 76: 214-226.
2 Musgrove, A. et al. (2013) Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. British Birds 106: 64-100.