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Here is a very interesting discussion about Pipits.
I found the contribution by Etienne Marais very interesting!
Pipit identification is probably the most difficult area of birding one will encounter. Personally I think some so-called experienced birders are far too gung-ho regarding confidence levels with these birds, and are probably fooling themselves at least some of the time. What I've learned with this birds is that the more you learn, the fuzzier it gets, and there is a big gap in the taxonomic and descriptive work regarding the Plain-backed/Buffy/Long-tailed complex and even more confusion surrounding what is a Kimberley Pipit. Generally a photo is hard to pin down, and field observation is more useful as it tells you more about size and movement - critical aspects of Pipit ID. However in this case you have three nice photos and some field description which is useful.
What is clear about this bird is that is has a well-marked mantle - which immediately rules out Buffy and Plain-backed Pipits. This is supported in my mind by the fact that it does not look very lanky, in terms of leg length -which is usually a feature of the Buffy/Plain-backed group. In addition the body looks quite stocky - it has a big shouldered, big necked look, that to me is one of the key pointers towards Long-billed. The third photos also suggests a slightly flatter crown than is typical of African which often show a more rounded crown. The facial markings are rather lightly patterned, with a weak malar stripe and the chest markings less distinct than is typical in African/Mountain Pipits. I do not think the claw is particularly long- I've seen many African Pipits with much longer claws than this one. Mandible colour is a bit on the pink side - but I think still OK for Long-billed -although I must admit that I have serious doubts about this as a diagnostic feature for pipits in Southern Africa. (I recently received a nice series of African Pipit photos from Kruger with clearly pinkish bases to the mandible - and also seen photos taken at a nest of Long-billed which showed the male with a pinkish base and the female with a yellowish base!!). The bill is intermediate, but thicker at the base than most African Pipits (which tend to have smaller, slightly bulbous bills). Once again bills are remarkably variable - I've seen African Pipits in Etosha with Loooong bills. The variability of pipits requires that one looks at as many features as possible - remember there are 19 described races of Long-billed Pipit, but one thing I've noticed about Long-billed is that most of the Gauteng region birds have these dark almost "dusky" flanks shown on your bird. Also there was only a little tail wagging - generally Long-billed does not show much wagging at all, but on occassion you will find an individual that's a bit more "waggy" than the others.
Your comments about habitat and size relative to the Africans, combined with the comments above give me confidence in saying that I would agree with Long-billed.
As regards playing tapes as a way of confirming ID, I think the evidential value of a response to a played call is limited. I've had Natal Spurfowl respond to the call of Terrestrial Brownbul, and can give thousands of other examples of where birds respond to calls of different species, including closely related ones. This can support an ID, but should never be taken as diagnostic.
On LBJ's - I'm running the 10th LBJ 'Field Course' at Ezemvelo again this year (November) just before heading off to Mozambique for another season of Pitta watching!
I think the thing with call response is not to rely on it totally. If all other factors fit it can be a clincher - but it can be misleading when a species responds to the recording of another species - and I have observed this many, many times.
According to Roberts MM these birds occur in groups during winter. And that was precisely the case here. It's habit of flying to an elevated structure such as a tree when disturbed was observed when we neared this group. Here one is observed sitting on a branch which is classical behavior. At the time we observed these birds, there was no tail wagging involved. Another behavior of Long-billed Pipit.
Note that the bill is long and slightly down curved. Also note the strong short hind claw.
Plain-backed Pipit, August 2010, Near Graskop and God's Window.
The heavy-chested appearance in the last picture is misleading as bird was building up momentum to pace forward. The bird shows a heavy belly. Typical of Plain-backed Pipit.
There is a larger contrast between the upper parts(brown) and lower parts(creamy) in pic 2 as with Buffy where the back is normally also just a richer buff of the breast and not brown. The yellow bill base which is very obvious in this individual. Plain-backed Pipit shows a preference for burnt areas.
Rock Pipit - they have shorter legs and tail, the black line through the eye is a feature, brown back with buffy underparts, faint streaking and pale throat, but the best one still, he's between the rocks!
Bumping this thread up and I have spent the good part of yesterday and this morning going through everybodies great contribution to this thread.
I will never be 100% confident enough to make a call between Buffy and Plain Backed Pipit so I am coming here for some advice.
The first is a picture of a Buffy Pipit which was taken in February in KNP, also at first I thought it was Plain Backed but it was then pointed out to me by Niall ,I think, that the mandible was indeed showing a pinkish colouration. Lesson learnt
Now I have been looking for Plain Backed for a while now, and finally on Sunday I saw what I thought, again, was Plain Backed Pipit at Rietvlei. At first the mandible looked more yellowish to me when looking through the binoculars, but upon examining the photo's it now looks more pinkish.
The habitat is spot on for Plain Backed, recently burnt area, rocky hillside etc and the fact that Chamberlain's mentions that the spot where I found them is prime Plain Backed pipit habitat and a very good spot to find them. Also the Buffy I saw in KNP looked bigger than this pipit from what I can remember. In the Plain Backed photo one can also see a distinct longish claw.
But I do know that Buffy Pipit also favours the same type of habitat, also can occur in the same area, which makes this ID very difficult for me.. Seeing as this might be my 500th lifer, I would like to make 100% sure about it, so please help me out.