“Look up, waaaaay up” – the songbird up high

Look to the skies for our next instalment in our grassland birds series. Nate gives us the low-down (or high-up?) on the Sprague’s Pipit!

We’ve talked a lot about secretive birds in this series of blogs, but this next bird could possibly take the cake in camouflage skills. The Sprague’s Pipit is a member of the motacillidae family, the only representative other than closely related and more common American Pipit. Due to the sneakiness of this bird, we are going to be spending lots of time on identifying features in hopes that you will have luck to scout out these rare visitors to the Manitoba prairies.

Sprague’s Pipit. Note the comparatively large eye and skinny neck, as well as the more darkly-feathered “jawline” mark on the side of the face around the eye. Photo by Christian Artuso.

Identification: Auditory

Have you ever spent an outrageous amount of time looking around your house, car or yard for your favourite hat only to remember it’s on your head? A similar thing might happen to you when you’re looking for a Sprague’s pipit! These fellows are experts at hiding low to the ground in short grass and blend in remarkably well to their surroundings. Thankfully, they let out a piercing song when singing up to 100 metres in the air which makes them easy to hear, but a little difficult to see unless you have good binoculars and a limber neck. The song, which is rarely sung from the ground, is a series of descending high pitched “chooro chooro chooro” held for three seconds and repeated during the display which can range from 30 minutes up to three whole hours!

You can here a Sprague’s Pipit here.

Identification: Visual

A more common sight of a Sprague’s Pipit in flight. Song is a key way to identify that the bird you are squinting your eyes to see is indeed a Sprague’s Pipit. Photo by Brian Sullivan, AllAboutBirds.org.

One of the more prominent features of the Sprague’s Pipit is its large head, big eyes and neck. The neck appears rather skinny compared to the head and body which is accented by a cream coloured ‘jawline’. The ‘jawline’ is then separated from the throat by a faint dark-brown line. The cheeks are outlined with a light buff giving the appearance of ears. The top of the head is heavily streaked with dark brown that travels from the back of the neck to the base of the beak. The back of the bird has light bronze edging on the wings and white barring on the coverts. The peach-coloured throat extends slightly further towards the breast, passing the ‘jawline’, in which it is met by a dark brown streaky necklace. This necklace is accented by the faint peach colouration which continues past the necklace and mixes with the pale colouration of the breast while the flanks of the bird are unstreaked.

In flight (good luck seeing it anywhere else!) you should be able to see the white outer tail feathers contrasted with black inner tail feathers. The bend of the wing may appear slightly orange in flight, while the majority of the flight feathers are slightly varying pale-cream colours. The beak is medium length and thin with pale yellow colouration on the sides and a black covering on the top and at the tip. On the bottom, the leg colour varies from a dull orange to a pale pink and will match the colour of the feet.

Habitat & Conservation

Sprague’s Pipits breed exclusively in the North American great plains with Manitoba being their most eastern nesting habitat. They are very picky with the grass in their habitat preferring it to be 6-12 inches long. Although they like short-grass, these pipits completely avoid overgrazed pastures but can handle small levels of grazing if kept above 6 inches and no longer than a foot. Nests are placed on the ground but surrounded by tall grass, usually the tallest grasses in that territory. Territories are established by singing males and can be as large as 16 acres.

Sprague’s Pipit grassland habitat. Photo by Tom Jones, AllAboutBirds.org.

They are very rarely found in non-native grasslands and will avoid croplands completely. In their wintering areas in Texas and Mexico they will utilize non-native grasslands and even more urbanized areas such as sports fields (hopefully they don’t get confused as a badminton birdie!).

According to the North American Breeding Bird Atlas, Sprague’s Pipit populations declined at a rate of 3.1% between 1966 and 2015 for a cumulative decline of 79%. They are currently listed as vulnerable under IUCN, and threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act and Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act. Due to their reliance on large, continuous habitat, Sprague’s pipits are facing a decline largely due to loss of habitat from conversion of pastures and prairies to cropland, excessive grazing, and invasion of woody shrubs. Although overgrazing can reduce available habitat, responsible livestock grazing is highly beneficial in reducing grass height and limiting shrub growth while encouraging new grass growth.

-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz