American Pipit - Photo by Don Reimer
American Pipit - Photo by Don Reimer
I admit it - a streaky brown bird perched on a barren rock may not elate most bird-watchers. Frequently the "LBJ" (little brown job) factor causes us to pass by a drab-looking bird in pursuit of more colorful or more easily identifiable species. Often the small brown bird in question is a member of the sparrow family. But not always.

Take a closer look at my photo. Unlike a typical sparrow, this brownish-gray bird has a rather thin bill, a prominent white eyering and a solid dark cheek patch. Despite the photo angle, this bird also has a longish tail with white outer tail feathers that are quite conspicuous during flight. The bird's very long hind toe is characteristic of other ground-dwelling species, with the Lapland Longspur as a namesake example.

On the rock, the stationary bird slowly pumped its tail up and down. I had already received auditory confirmation clues when the bird vocalized overhead before landing near to me: a repetitive, high-pitched "pipit, pipit" call.

The photo bird is an American Pipit, a mountain species that breeds across stretches of northern Alaska, Canadian Arctic islands and Newfoundland. Its seasonal nesting presence here in New England is limited to the alpine plateaus and meadows of Mount Washington and Mt. Katahdin.

In his insightful 1949 book Maine Birds, Ralph S. Palmer mentions Katahdin in particular: "Several persons tried to find Pipits on the mountain in 1946, with no success." Later attempts, however, discovered evidence of nesting there.

By mid-November, most pipits will move southward to wintering grounds in the southern U.S., Mexico and Central America. Their preferred winter habitats include beaches, barren fields, agricultural lands and golf courses. A significant percentage of pipits migrate along Maine's coastal corridor each fall.
This pipit's range extends beyond North American boundaries to areas of the world such as Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan, India and Japan.

The American Pipit was formerly considered as a form of the Water Pipit of the Old World due to its habits of foraging at the edges of tundra puddles. Warm air rising from lower valleys transports insects into the higher elevations, where most of them eventually die. Pipits feed on these frozen insects in the melting snowbanks of spring alpine meadows or glean insects among rocks or in short-grass areas. While feeding, pipits tend to walk or run rather than hop, as most other small birds do. Their head bobs forward and backward in the manner of a bobble-head doll.

Either solitary or found in pairs during the breeding season, pipits gather in fall flocks that can number in the hundreds. These flocks may also contain Horned Larks, longspurs and similar nomadic roamers. When flushed, they fly up and circle around in unison, wheeling and descending in a graduated stair-step pattern to resume feeding.

Spring courtship activity is influenced by their open habitat conditions above timberline. Lacking trees and bushes for singing perches, pipits engage in aerial courtship rituals. Males fly about 130 feet high to utter their song during a 30-second flight display. Some spring day I hope to hear that tinkling trilled song for myself, maybe on Katahdin.