Olive-backed Pipit

Or Two!

9th October 2010. Dawn to Dusk birding with Messrs. Riddington and Harvey. Spent the morning working the Sumburgh area and Scatness, quick lunch at Paul’s and afternoon in the Quendale area. Dusk at Roger’s the previous evening (8th October) had incoming Redwings and Goldcrest in number suggested ‘arrival’. With wind in SE (2-4) and some overcast/ low cloud conditions good. Morning brought definite arrival.

Sumburgh area

Little Goldcrest  ‘carpet’ at Sumburgh -(up to 50 birds), Reed Buntings (6), Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher (2 – one still sporting juvenile breast and mantle feathers), Robins, Chiffchaff, migrant Dunnocks and LOTS of Redwing and Song Thrush – a Fall! Best was the Pallas’s Warbler at Sumburgh Farm (found by Mark Reeder late previous day).

Pallas’s Warbler, Sumburgh Farm. 9th October 2010. Gary Bell. The one species our tour group thought they had missed. Not so, all members present the next morning – short walk from their hotel rooms. Nice finale before flights home.


More Lapland Buntings (15-20), Redwing and Song Thrush numbers increasing – flocks numbering hundreds of Redwing. Several Wheatear and this wacky looking partial albino Wheatear which has been around for while. 1 Ring Ouzel, abietinus Chiffchaff, Reed Bunting and plenty to see.

partial albino Wheatear, Scatness 9th October 2010


Olive-backed Pipit number one

Bottom of Quendale Burn. Met Mark and Andy coming down. Chatted with Mark then headed up burn. Noticed RR and PVH with focused attention. caught them up – Paul said Roger had seen interesting Pipit. Just then ‘the bird’ flew up – obvious strong flyer Tree Pipit type- flew fairly close past – even in flight BRIGHT plumage tones olive/ yellow, black and white – “looks like an Olive-backed Pipit” – just as Roger had strongly suspected despite limited/obscured views on the ground. It promptly landed on dyke and all 3 of us agreed, no doubt now. It’s an OBP: weakly streaked olive mantle, strong head pattern, bold black streaklng on white over underparts. The flew back into burn. Rang Mark Reeder to get them back. Bird very ‘jumpy’ flew up and over our heads and called- classic OBP call -softer, shorter than Tree and less buzzy at the end – more on that later. One more flight and distant landing  on fence post-then lost.

No photos, no recording of call – just enough for a submission!

We proceeded up the burn now accompanied by Messrs Reeder and Mackay. Long walk and much searching collected already present: 2 Yellow-browed Warblers, a calling but elusive Dusky Warbler, a Red-breasted Flycatcher (photo of the bird here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ajmwildlife/5083498172/lightbox/,) odd Robins and Chiffchaff, 20 plus Goldcrest, 800 plus Redwing ‘circling’. At the very top of the burn, news and photos from Brydon. Our Olive-backed Pipit seemed a little eclipsed by Brydon and James finding a PG Tips  (Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler) on Fetlar.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Quendale, 9th October 2010. One of 2 two, the second of which was slightly duller and made me wonder about Hume’s (no calls heard), though not seen again by me.

Olive-backed Pipit number two

Late afternoon we decided to finish off with a circuit of the fields above Hillwell Loch and the Eel Burn. Surprisingly, searching of the burn was interrupted by several unmistakable calls of an Olive -backed Pipit. Unlike earlier the bird was sitting very low in the vegetation -almost preferring to run than fly. When in flight very short distance covered before pitching and moving on ground through thick vegetation. This time I managed a few poor photo as and sound recordings. First view of the underparts and it seemed remarkably heavily streaked – perhaps more so than earlier in the Quendale burn. At one point Roger stood  ‘over’ the bird and despite failing light managed very acceptable photos. We mused about this being a second bird – but didn’t think we would sound very convincing.

However one feature suspected of the bird in flight, later easily evident in the photos, it was that a significant chunk from the inner part (some tertials and inner secondaries) of the left wing was missing. We were confident that at Quendale the bird was fully winged (no gaps) – well seen in flight overhead.

Our 2 bird optimism would probably have stayed as a private conversation – except that 4 days later, Roy Hargreaves discovered a flighty, fully winged Olive-backed Pipit at the top of the Quendale Burn. Our reasonable speculation is that this was the bird first seen at the bottom of the Quendale Burn (our bird number one) and the  ‘clipped wing’ Eel Burn bird was once only observation (bird number two).

Photo below all of the Eel Burn bird. OBP number two!

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel Burn. 9 October 2010. Check out the heavy streaking on this a true ‘Sibe’.

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel burn. 9 October 2010. Dusk!

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel burn. 9 October 2010. Roger Riddington.

We had certainly talked earlier in the day about the possibility of seeing this species – chiefly because multiple records of Dusky and Pallas’s Warblers had arrived in Shetland in the past 24 hours and, with Olive-backed Pipit, the 3 species often turn up in Britain at the same time.

Calls of OBP

I have waffled on for a while now that I think the calls of Tree Pipit and Olive-backed Pipit, often described as indistinguishable, seem to me to be sufficiently different as to be useful in the field.  The encounter with these 2 birds and their calls, immediately made me think of OBP and not Tree Pipit. I think the sonagrams show why. The OBP has no strong modulation at the end – it fades a little  whereas the Tree Pipit has obvious strong modulation at the end. Roger described it better than I can thus:

“…(re Quendale OBP)… which I transcribed as a reedy “tzeeee”, differing from Tree Pipit in the fact that the “zz” was at the start of the call and the ending of the call was a clean “eee”.”

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel burn. 9 October 2010. Sonagram of calls

Tree Pipit, Spurn, East Yorkshire. September 2010. Sonagram of calls.

About Martin Garner

I am a Free Spirit
This entry was posted in Pipits, Warblers. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Olive-backed Pipit

  1. I enjoyed this post. Having just moved from Denmark (where Tree Pipits are very common) to China (where OBPs are very common), I have had a good opportunity to compare the calls of both species in the field. The two ARE distinguishable, with OBP clearly shorter and less wheezy at the end, as has been pointed out. But for me (a poor aural learner), I would need to hear them both regularly to keep up that ability to differentiate them. I have always been impressed by birders who can pick out the more subtle calls of overflying birds – it’s something that no matter how hard I try, I struggle with!

    • Martin Garner says:


      thanks for that helpful comment. I should add too that Grahame Walbridge wrote me
      “I was interested in your piece on OBP vs Tree call. I must admit, I`ve always thought that they were readily seperable (on call). Roger`s transcription is good, but I would add that the pitch is also different, OBP being higher, which can be clearly seen in the sonogram; OBP, peaking at 8kHz, compared to Tree at 7kHz. Interestingly, this compares well with Redwing (8kHz) & RTP (8.2kHz).”


  2. Mark says:

    We woz robbed 😦

  3. Roy Hargreaves says:

    Hi Martin,
    Your comments about the calls differing are interesting. Certainly when I heard the call I did think OBP, but your comments and those of Roger helped to clarify why. However, I think that while some OBP calls are too high for Tree Pipit, that others are lower-pitched and would be difficult – certainly if you hadn’t heard either species for a while. Tring (or Herts for that matter), not being the best place to even hear a Tree Pipit never mind an OBP. Certainly at least two OBPs involved as the bird I saw on 13th had a complete set of tertials etc – more later on email.

  4. Tim Allwood says:

    I would second Roy’s comments and feel that some calls of OBP can be quite similar to Tree Pipit and that although with sonograms and no distractions etc there seems to be a fairly obvious difference and also when you’re bumping into OBPs regularly you do get your ear in, a one-off call in U.K. could be very confusing. However, it might just be enough to make you consider checking the bird out…

    it is possible to listen to both at the same time for comparison on xeno-canto – just play both at the same time. There are more OBPs on xeno-canto Asia of course…


  5. Pingback: Finale- Shetland Autumn 2011 | Birding Frontiers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s