American Buff-bellied Pipit at Cockersand – a new Fylde bird

On 4th May 2014 Stuart Piner discovered an American Buff-bellied Pipit at Cockersand - the first for the Fylde and Lancashire.

Finder's Account

Following a month of almost non-stop work, which had cumulated in a weekend-long paperwork session on Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th May, I was approaching madness with genuine speed. By 6pm on Sunday, enough was enough, so my partner Josephine and I decided to take a walk at Cockersand. Whilst walking along Slack Lane I noticed a passerine hop out of the grass bordering the field by the road and land in the tilled earth. I immediately identified the bird as a Water Pipit and began to photograph the stunning pipit in summer plumage. Delighted with finding a Water Pipit in such an unusual location so late in the spring, I showed Josephine the bird and after taking a few more photographs, at 7.09pm we left the pipit still feeding in the field and retired to a local pub for dinner. Whilst at the pub I‘Googled’ ‘Buff-bellied Pipit May’ on my Blackberry telephone, but failing to find any photos of summer-plumaged birds in a brief internet search, I dismissed the possibility. Just before returning home, Lancaster birder Dan Haywood telephoned to tell me about his day birding, and I joked that I was just on my way home to check that I hadn’t ‘goofed’ a Buff-bellied Pipit! Whilst I clearly had the possibility of the bird being a Buff-bellied Pipit on my mind, I wasn’t giving the option serious consideration, or else I would have raised the alarm, and I wouldn’t have spent the remaining daylight sat in a pub.

We arrived home just as darkness was falling, and I immediately loaded my photographs of the pipit onto my computer. Suddenly, when the context of a coastal field in Lancashire had been removed (clearly, a coastal field in May should have been a massive clue that the bird was not a Water Pipit), everything became clear, and after a few minutes of playing spot the difference with photos of summer plumage Buff-bellied Pipits and checking features in field guides, I realised that my Water Pipit was in fact a Buff-bellied Pipit. I telephoned Chris Batty and asked him to urgently turn his computer on, and knowing of my earlier Water Pipit claim, he responded ‘why, you’ve not just found a Buff-bellied Pipit have you?’ After viewing my photographs he agreed with my (belated) identification and the news was broadcast on Rare Bird Alert.

Unfortunately, there was no sign of the bird at dawn the following morning. Given I try my best to make sure that other birders see the rare and scarce birds that I encounter, it was disappointing and embarrassing that my initial mis-identification cost people the opportunity of seeing such a great bird.

Ten years ago American Buff-bellied Pipit was a mega rarity in Britain; prior to 2007 had been just five records, but by the end of 2012 at total of 37 had been identified in Britain (with a further 18 in Ireland by the end of 2011). Consequently, whilst a spring bird was evidently not on my radar (in fact my bird was the first to have occurred in spring plumage in Britain or Ireland) an autumn bird at Cockersand was certainly on my hit list. Having cost everyone the spring bird, I’ll just have to try even harder to find one in autumn!

Stuart Piner, June 2014.


Separation from japonicus
Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America by Alstrom et al. states that rubescens and japonicus are ‘not safely separable’ in summer plumage. However, using some of the features listed in Advanced Bird ID Handbook by Nils Van Duivendijk the bird can be tentatively identified as a rubescens:-

•    Dark brown legs, pale pinkish to red-brown in japonicus
•    Weakly streaked upperparts (see figure 1), heavier streaking in japonicus

Photos by Stuart Piner