Meadow Pipits (28 September 2009)


Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis migrate south in autumn through Britain. The origins and destinations of these birds are unclear but they may well comprise a mixture of populations from Iceland, the Faeroes, Norway and northern Britain, with many of them moving on to winter in France, Iberia and northern Africa (Tom Dougall, ‘Meadow Pipit’, The Migration Atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland, (Wernham, C V, Toms, M P, Marchant J H, Clark J A, Siriwardena G M and Baillie S R, eds) T & A D Poyser, London (2002) pp.470-473).

Meadow Pipits can often be lured into nets or traps by playing their song. From 10 to 28 September 2009, at Oxmoor Local Nature Reserve, Runcorn, Cheshire, I caught 107 birds. All had completed their autumn moult, a complete moult in the case of the adults and partial post-juvenile moult in the first-years: of the total, six were 'adult' birds (Euring age code 4), 100 were first-years (Euring code 3) and one was left unaged (Euring code 2).

In common with all the northern European Motacillidae (pipits and wagtails), as commented before, most first-year birds have a very limited post-juvenile moult and moult limits can be tricky to see. For 99 of the first-year Meadow Pipits the number of old greater coverts (ogcs) was recorded, as follows:

number of retained ('old') greater coverts 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
number of birds 30 42 11 11 4 0 1 0 0 0 0

This is one of the species for which it is important to record all ten greater coverts - although some ringers count only the outermost 9 greater coverts - because the most common moult pattern amongst these birds was for them to have moulted the 9th gc but not the 10th (innermost). As noted previously with Siskins, the innermost feather is probably moulted out of order with the others, in a similar way to the tertials being moulted separately from the other secondaries.

With Meadow Pipits it is not as simple as just counting the retained (old) greater coverts, however:

  • 40 of the 42 with 9 ogcs had moulted just gc9, the two exceptions being one that had moulted gc8 and one that had moulted gc10

  • 10 of the 11 with 8 ogcs had moulted gc8 and gc9, the exception having moulted gc8 and gc10

  • of the 11 with 7 ogcs, seven birds had moulted gcs 8, 9 and 10, and four had moulted gcs 7, 8 and 9

  • all of those with 6 or fewer ogcs had moulted all of the innermost gcs 7-10

As well as moulting coverts, many of the first-year birds moult one, two or all three tertials. These are long and exposed, perhaps amongst the most important feathers for a pipit, and it might not be surprising that they are frequently moulted in this species.

The following collection of images, all taken from 10 to 28 September 2009, illustrates the variety of moult. They are shown from top to bottom in order of increasing extent of moult.

The first bird, below, has retained all 10 ogcs; all of the median coverts are also old, as are the tertials.

The bird below has 9 ogcs, having moulted just gc9; all of the tertials are old, as are the median coverts apart from the innermost median covert, which has been moulted (thanks to Clive McKay, Tay Ringing Group, for spotting this from the photo).

The bird below has 9 ogcs, having moulted just gc9; it has also replaced two of the median coverts (the innermost and the next-but-one), and the longest and middle tertial feathers (s7 and s8).

The bird below also has 9 ogcs, having moulted just gc9; it has all 'old' median coverts, but has replaced all three tertials.

The next bird has 8 ogcs, having moulted gc8 and gc9; it has replaced the innermost four median coverts, and all three tertials.

The following bird has 6 ogcs, having moulted its innermost four greater coverts, and all new median coverts and tertials.

The most extensive moult was shown by the following bird with 4 ogcs, and all new median coverts and tertials. Is it significant that the primaries and secondaries of this bird are the most worn of any of the juveniles caught. Perhaps it was the oldest juvenile, from a particularly early brood?

The final three images (below) are from three different adults, with all feathers of the same generation and in pristine condition, and with noticeably square primary coverts.

This webpage deals only with the post-breeding (pre-basic) and post-juvenile (first pre-basic) moults, but Meadow Pipit is one of the relatively few northern European species that also has a pre-breeding (pre-alternate) moult in the late winter or early spring, making ageing of birds in spring/ summer even more tricky.


David Norman.


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