Visiting birders to the Asir highlands of southwest Saudi Arabia would do well to familiarize themselves with the two resident pipit species—the local subspecies of the Long-billed Pipit (Anthus similis arabicus) and the less common Arabian subspecies of African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus eximius). Both can be found near grassy, rock-strewn slopes and terraces in the highlands, habitat typified by Wadi Reema and the surrounding area.
Prior to my first visit to Abha in August 2018, I read the little I could find on how to ID African Pipits and where best to find them in Saudi. Besides a very poor quality illustration, the only description offered in Birds of the Middle East is that African Pipit resembles Richard’s Pipit but has a shorter hindclaw. On the former, I’ve seen Richard’s Pipit in the UAE on several occasions and they are a large, upright pipit of grassier habits and always struck me as perhaps the brownest Anthus “spuh” in the Middle East. Based on the illustration in BoME, one would expect African Pipit to be browner still, the darkness of the illustrator’s color choice obscuring what I would come to discover were some of the more critical field marks. Richard’s Pipit also shows a quite prominent malar or lateral throat-stripe, which I had heard was a good field mark to look out for on a possible African Pipit as well, despite the fact that the BoME’s illustration shows this feature as much less prominent compared to Richard’s. As for the shorter hindclaw, such comparisons are really only helpful if someone can manage high-quality images—which is often quite difficult when a bird is foraging in grass—or has bird in hand and not very helpful for someone simply observing through binoculars.
So I took to the internet to see what other information I could find on African Pipit in Saudi. I read Jem Babbington’s blog post on netting both African and Long-billed out in Tanomah in which he discusses the difference in tail pattern between the two species—in a nutshell, buff outer tail feathers in LBPs and white outer tail feathers in African. Beyond that, no other webpages really added more textual notes on what exactly I was looking for, and a cursory perusal of the few images of A. c. eximius online had me focusing only on those features already highlighted in what I had read—brown, streaky upper parts similar to Richard’s Pipit, prominent malar stripe, and white outer tail feathers. Therefore, a pair of pipits I encountered in the village of Al Jamal, a few kilometers west of Wadi Reema that appeared to be displaying those three features got me clicking away, certain that I had just found my first African Pipits. However, once I had a chance to look over the images I had captured I began to have my doubts. These birds in fact were Long-billed Pipits but looking fairly different than the LBPs with which I was familiar in the UAE. I have subsequently come to learn from an article by Guy M. Kirwan & Andrew Grieve in Sandgrouse (OSME) that we likely have two subspecies present on the Arabian peninsula—A. s. arabicus in the southwest (SW Saudi and west Yemen) and A. s. decaptus in the northeast (UAE and northern Oman). A. s. decaptus, as these Google images show, displays the more olive-gray tone to the upperparts we see in the species’ illustrations in Collins Bird Guide and BoME. Whereas, the upperparts of A. s. arabicus are, in fact, browner and streakier than decaptus.
The following day I shot video of a pipit in Wadi Reema, which upon further research into the two species, I was able to pin down as African. From there on out I thought I would have it sorted and wouldn’t have trouble separating them in the future, yet on my last visit to the Abha area this past April I did it again. I went out to Wadi Reema for a quick search for Rufous-capped Lark and African Pipit. Shortly after turning up and shooting video footage of the larks, I got on a pair of pipits working their way along the base of the Reema Dam, only a short distance from where I saw the African Pipit the previous year. Viewing through my bins, once again brown, streaky upperparts fooled me into thinking these were African Pipits, and I spent the next fifteen minutes shooting video and trying to capture what decent images I could. And, once again, only upon actually viewing what I’d captured did I realize they were Long-billed Pipits. While you may know what to look out for for each species, trying to pin those field marks down on active birds through binoculars can actually be a bit challenging. So what I’d like to do below is discuss the field marks I have come to find as helpful in distinguishing between A. s. arabicus and A. c. eximius using video footage and images I shot of each in the Asir region over the past two years.
Let’s start with the Long-billed Pipit I saw last April.
Both species would appear as medium-large rather nondescript, brown pipits from a distance, and indeed that’s what we see in the linked video. What, however, is the most standout feature on this bird? Clearly it’s the long, narrow supercilium (i.e. eyebrow) that extends from the bird’s beak to well past the eye. The next obvious feature is the length and shape of the beak. This bird’s beak is quite long—hence the common name—and appears very slightly curved downward, an effect of the curve in the beak’s culmen and the shape of the lower mandible. After having studied images of African Pipit, I have come to feel that these are two fairly reliable field marks for distinguishing between the two. As can be seen in this video of the African Pipit I saw in August of 2018, the supercilium is not the first thing that jumps out. It’s not nearly as pronounced as on a Long-billed Pipit, appearing fairly faint and not extending quite as far back behind the eye.
What can, however, be noted about this bird’s eyebrow is that it bumps up slightly directly above the eye, which can be seen in many of the images online for the species. Regarding the beak, on this bird, as on most in the images as well, the beak appears shorter and straighter than the beak of the Long-billed, closer in shape to a Tree Pipit. What, in fact, jumps out on this bird and offers another reliable field mark by which to distinguish it from Long-billed are the other facial markings besides the eyebrow. Indeed, there is a malar stripe, bolder and sharper than what may be seen on a well-marked A. s. arabicus like the one in the image to the left above. In addition, African Pipit shows a mustachial stripe—just beneath the eye—as can be seen on the bird in the video. This is a particularly helpful field mark in that it is absent on Long-billed Pipits, showing rather a usually well-defined, brown auricular (i.e. ear) patch, not framed by black beneath the eye. The auricular patch just below the eye on an African Pipit is light-colored and darkens gradually towards the rear.
Another field mark to consider when trying to ascertain which pipit you’ve got is the length of the tail—Long-billed Pipits give the impression of a particularly long pipit owing to the longer beak and longer tail. Further, the streaking on the breast can help support an ID on more well-marked birds. While the streaking is variable on a Long-billed Pipit, it typically appears more diffuse, as seen above. African Pipit, on the other hand, is usually more finely streaked on the breast as seen on the bird in the video and more noticeably in images online. Now, of course, there is the matter of the color of the outer tail feathers—buff on LBPs and white on African—but I found this difficult to judge in the field. The LBP in the image above seemed to flash white when I initially encountered it, which led me to believe at the time that it was in fact an African. Then I never caught a glimpse of the tail feathers on the African captured in the video. Like the matter of the hindclaw, this would require good images or a bird in the hand to best judge.
Finally, the least helpful feature to consider when trying to ID Long-billed vs. African Pipits is the general plumage coloration. The African in the video was seen at 1:00 PM under the bright Arabian sun and so appears more washed out than one might expect, especially considering the illustration in the BoME. Any lighter and this might lead to confusion with migrant Tawny Pipits, which pass through the region in the spring and fall. Not to mention, the bird’s plumage also appears worn, which may also give it a more cooler tone compared to a fresh plumage. The images online of African Pipits show a fairly broad spectrum from light to dark, which could similarly be a result of lighting or plumage wear. It might also relate to the various subspecies of African Pipit, similar to the various subspecies of Long-billed Pipit. As mentioned above, arabicus Long-billed Pipit seem to run browner overall and streakier above compared to the other subspecies occurring on the Arabian Peninsula (i.e. A. s. decaptus).
In short, don’t get fooled by the color of the pipit as I did, not once but twice, down in Saudi’s southwest.
Updated July 16, 2020:
Last weekend I encountered several African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus eximius) in three different locations south of Abha in addition to a few Long-billed Pipit. The images and video I captured further support the ID points I discussed above. To help my readers make the connection to features on the actual birds, I’ve added arrows to indicate which features need to be considered to successfully distinguish between the two species. Let’s start with the images and videos for the African Pipits I saw this past weekend, which included two juveniles.
African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus eximius)
Long-billed Pipit (Anthus similis arabicus)
The territorial songs of African and Long-billed Pipits are quite distinct as can be heard below.