Tree Pipits in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

Do you have difficulty distinguishing this summer visitor from its resident cousin the Meadow Pipit? Then forget the guide book descriptions of stockier build, bolder breast markings narrowing to fine streaks on the flank, and lighter legs, as these are so hard to see in the field. Instead concentrate on habitat and spring song and behaviour. Once you’ve sussed these out it’s hard to miss a Tree Pipit at 50 metres, although still difficult to photograph one (one day I’ll get closer)!

The obvious habitat is recently felled or planted areas where a few tall trees remain. Look also on heathland or mosses with scattered trees, or woodland glades, especially with scattered birch. There must be plenty of open areas for the dispaly flight and some low ground cover as this is where they will nest.

A bird singing from a tree has a song that is hard to forget once heard a few times – rather Canary-like with a bit of a stutter and ending usually with a couple of strong double notes that carry over a distance. Males sing strongly on arrival in late April, diminish a little during nest building and laying but sing again afterwards, usually away from the nest.

What marks out the Tree Pipit once and for all is its delightful song during its “parachute” flight during May. A singing bird will suddenly rise into the sky then glide down on open wings to an adjacent tree or even the ground. It’s one of my favourite sights of the spring. However, just to make life difficult, Meadow Pipits parachute as well, but their song in flight is much less interesting and distinctive.

After raising young in June and early July, the adults moult before leaving in September for tropical Africa.

Nationally this is a species that has suffered serious declines in numbers, and in 2009 was moved from the “amber” list to the “red list” of species of high conservation concern. In Cumbria numbers seem to have fallen sharply, but it is still a good county in which to find them. It is in fact a species that should benefit from the Forestry Commissions current programme to fell large areas of mature conifer forests and replant with native Oak and Birch. It was widely distributed and common over the central Lake District, but much scarcer on the outskirts of the county. But one site I visit near Bigland, on the Cartmel Peninsular, holds good numbers.

Numbers have diminished so much in recent years that observers are asked to submit all records of this red listed species.