'Little Brown Jobs' abound in winter months
By Dr. Jay V. Huner
Much of our wildlife features cryptic coloration dark-brownish above and light, often with streaking below. With respect to birds, this means they are hard to see from above against the ground and vegetation and from below looking upwards as they fly. If you get a brief view of such birds, identification is often impossible and birders refer to such birds as LBJs - Little Brown Jobs, not as older readers might think, a former US president!
Over 20 species of sparrows spend the winter in our region. Very similar to the plain brown sparrows are the pipits that arrive with the first cool winds of the fall. There are only two species but to the general observer, they are just lumped into the LBJ category with sparrows and other small song birds. However, anyone interested in birds can quickly learn to separate them from the other LBJs.
The two pipits are the common American Pipit, once called the Water Pipit, and the uncommon Sprague's Pipit. Both species walk and run along the ground, have long, thin bills, and tend to be slender. The sparrows, however, hop on the ground, have conical bills, and tend to be round.
American Pipits have brown backs, streaked breasts and bellies, and black legs and feet.
Sprague's Pipits have streaked backs, streaked heads, whitish faces emphasizing their dark eyes, streaked breasts but not bellies, and light, yellowish/pinkish legs. Both species have white outer tail feathers that show clearly when they flush. American Pipits are almost always found in small to large flocks while Sprague's Pipits are almost always found alone although several may be in the same area.
When flushed, American Pipits fly in an undulating manner, and may return to the same general area. But, Sprague's Pipits often fly ahead of an observer, rising very high in the sky in an arc, falling like a rock, and landing some distance behind the observer. Each species utters a distinct call note when flushing. But there are so many explanations about what these notes sound like that it's best for readers to go on line and listen to them. Both species are birds of open areas including beaches, plowed fields, especially wet, muddy ones, golf courses, and short grass fields especially pastures and grassy air strips.
American Pipits nest in alpine areas above tree lines and in arctic tundra. Sprague's Pipits nest in prairies in the central US and southern Canada. There are generally no places for males to perch and defend territories and attract mates by singing. As a result, males of both species will fly high in the sky and sing above the ground. Male Sprague Pipits will remain aloft alternately flying then fluttering downward while singing for many minutes. Male American Pipits rarely stay aloft more than a minute but rise at least 100 feet above the ground.
Because Sprague's Pipits are rare, many birders seek them out for life lists and year lists. When Sprague's Pipits are found and reported on various bird listservs, birders soon show up to look for them. American Pipits are so common that they are ho hum birds that will be found sooner or later by any active birder!