The African pipit Anthus cinnamomeus
is by far the most abundant pipit throughout Southern Africa. In attempting to positively identify any pipit, one should first try to eliminate AP as a possible candidate. As many as 9/10 pipits seen could be APs!
Throughout its extensive range the African Pipit has a large number of subspecies. It is also highly variable, both within and between populations of the same subspecies, in terms of colouration and markings, perhaps even further complicated due to feather wear and solar bleaching. To make matters worse with the identification of a pipit, both from photographs and in the field, changes in the appearance of colours can be caused by the direction of the incoming light. In one instance the belly and flanks can appear a warm buff colour, while in another those same surfaces can show up much paler, almost white. The age of the feathers also significantly influences the appearance of the breast and mantle markings and the overall colouration of the bird. The feather bases can be seen from certain angles which creates colour illusions (e.g. head-on, from the side and from behind), creating the impression of a distinct feature when in fact there is none.
In pipits the arrangement of the scales on the legs and feet provides a wonderful way one can use to distinguish between larks and pipits, given that an adequate view is obtained. The front of the tarsus is covered by six or seven large, rectangular scales and the back of the tarsus is covered in a single continuous sheath. The legs and toes of larks, on the other hand, are covered in a multitude of small, rounded scales.
The African Pipit is quite dainty and delicate in build, with an upright, alert posture reminiscent of the related wagtails. At 16 – 17 cm, African Pipits are smaller than all other 'Large pipits'. The fairly long neck, smallish and pointed head, fine bill and slim belly are characteristic.
The AP has a well-marked facial mask with obvious contrast. Ear-coverts show buffy to dark brown and plain. Small white, rounded feathers make up the eye-ring, appearing as a white half crescent underscoring the eye. A broad creamy to buffy supercilium contrasts with the darker marked crown. The malar stripe is normally distinct. Iris is brown, but the eye seems black in the field.
The weak bill of the AP is of medium length with a large portion of the base to the lower mandible and lower part of the upper mandible a dull yellow. The top of the bill is a dark horn colour. The inside of the mouth is bright yellow or orange-yellow (in several other species the inside of the mouth is a dull pinkish colour), visible in a singing or yawning bird.
Legs and feet:
Despite their small size, African Pipits have particularly long hind-claws, as long as or longer than the hind-toe itself. However, the claw is rather weak and delicate and not as strongly curved as in many of the 'Large pipits’ or some of the larks. The long tarsus is pinkish or pale orange.
Depending on the location and the bird's age, sex and plumage condition, the breast markings in African Pipits, that normally form a rather neat necklace pattern with geographic variation in the breadth and intensity, can vary from quite thin streaks to broad smudges. Typically the necklace is narrower on the centre of the breast than on the sides. On the upper border, the necklace extends to the malar patch and then into the malar stripe to reach the base of the bill.
One of the most important characters to separate the 'Large pipits' group into two smaller groups is the amount of streaking on the mantle. Feathers on the mantle of an African pipit have a darker centre and a pale buffy-brown edge, creating the effect of scalloping. When the feathers are neatly arranged, these darker markings tend to form seven darker lines running down the mantle. However, in most cases the markings appear to be more random due to the position of the mantle feathers.
One of the classic identification characters of African Pipits is their pure white outer tail feathers. These clear white panels are best seen in flight. The central pair of tail feathers are slightly paler brown than the rest of the feathers, which are blackish or dark grey. The unevenly spaced tertials place the AP into the 'Large pipits' group.
Distribution and habitat:
Widely spread throughout most of Africa and southern Africa with sparse populations in the arid regions. Frequents open areas, grasslands, lightly wooded savannah, recently burnt veld, suburban parks and playing fields.
African Pipits are omnivores, inclined to forage rather haphazardly, whereas other pipits tend to walk slower and exhibit a more obvious pattern when foraging. When feeding, all pipits often squat down to retrieve prey. APs mainly locate prey visually. It may dig at dung or the base of grass clumps for insects like ants, grasshoppers, beetles and their larvae, centipedes and spiders. They also eat seeds and green plant material.
African pipits are monogamous breeders, normally breeding by late October through to late January. The nest is constructed by the female in 3 – 4 days, using dry grass and roots to shape a neat, shallow cup lined with fine fibres and hair in a slight depression next to a grass tuft or shrub for concealment. The clutch is on average 3 eggs and is incubated by mostly the female bird over a two-week period.
The brood is fed mainly grasshoppers and worms. Fledging takes place after another two to three weeks. The fledgling continues to be fed by both parents for a period.
References: Roberts VII; PIPITS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA