Olive-backed Pipit

Christmas arrived early in Orange County this weekend when, on November 1st, local birder, Jeff Bray, made the find of a lifetime: an Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) at Yorba Regional Park. It may not sound like much, but it’s a really big deal.

Olive-backed Pipit – Previous Continental Records

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Olive-backed Pipit, Yorba Regional Park, 01-NOV-14

For starters, there were only 3 previous records of this species in North America away from Alaska. (Here, North America is defined geographically as including Mexico – not the birding definition). Olive-backed Pipits had previously been found in Washoe, Nevada in 1967, in Baja in 1996 and on the Farallon Islands in California in 1998. So the take-home message is, these guys don’t show up very often! Whenever a call like this goes out, birders do their version of a ‘flash mob’, and the one at Yorba Regional Park on Saturday was very impressive! I was among the first 20 birders there, but soon birders began arriving from all over the map in minutes. And soon it was a who’s who of southern California birders. And why not? This little Olive-backed Pipit really put on a show! It led us a merry dance at first, flying from place to place within the park, landing in heavy cover and skulking around so low that often the only visible indication it was there was movement of the vegetation it was walking under. But eventually, it came out on the lawn between the picnic tables where it fed calmly for about an hour, giving everyone incredible looks. In fact, the bird was remarkably cooperative, seemingly oblivious to the constant whir of camera shutters and the quiet conversation of excited birders.

Olive-backed Pipit – Plumage Characteristics

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Olive-backed Pipit, from behind

Olive-backed Pipit is a relatively small, slender bird, measuring about 6 inches from beak to tail. True to its name, the back is a drab grayish olive green, with a hint of darker feather centers that form ill-defined solid or dotted lines down the back. The crown is similarly colored and streaked. The primaries show more substantial dark inner edges, while the outer primaries when folded had a hint of brighter olive green coloration. The upper chest was buffy, and the belly a clean, bright white, with both being marked by very dark, well-defined spots and streaks. Olive-backed Pipit has a very distinctive face pattern, with a bright white supercilium that is yellowish-tan near across the base of the bill on top. Even more distinctive is the dark eyeline that runs right through the eye from the base of the bill and splits the white supercilium behind the eye. The tan auricular (“ear patch” has a distinctive brownish black patch at the rear, and is bordered by more white on the lower cheek. A black malar stripe runs from below the bill to a black patch at the shoulder. The fairly deeply notched tail feathers were olive along the outer margins. This particular Olive-backed Pipit had bright and long feather edging suggesting it had just completed a molt. Three of the black-centered median coverts had wide white fringes forming a bright upper wingbar, while the greater coverts were broadly fringed in tan, forming a less distinct lower wingbar. Basically, Olive-backed Pipit is a study in subtle beauty.

Olive-backed Pipit – Behavior

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Olive-backed Pipit, foraging

In behavior, the Olive-backed Pipit is much like American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) in its ground foraging behavior, except that it often preferred much heavier cover. This bird “teetered” a lot (like a Spotted Sandpiper or an Ovenbird), often bobbing and dipping its tail as it leaned forward to grab insects from the grass. It even teetered as it walked on large tree branches when flushed up into the trees by over-zealous birders or passing dogs. The bird rarely stood still at all during the entire time I watched it. When in flight, it often gave a very high call with a burry tone to it. Despite being primarily a terrestrial bird, this Olive-backed Pipit was not shy about going very high in trees, landing some 75 feet up a sycamore at one point, and high in an oak later. But it always came back down sooner or later, much to the delight of the assembled crowd.

Olive-backed Pipit – Conservation Status

Olive-backed Pipit - frontal view showing chest streaking

Olive-backed Pipit – frontal view showing chest streaking

In terms of its conservation status, Olive-backed Pipit is designated an IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List species of least concern, being widespread throughout Europe and Asia, and not showing any obvious signs of decline, though no one is looking particularly closely at it. In the United States, apart from the previously mentioned vagrants, Olive-backed Pipit has heretofore been found only on the islands off Alaska, being casual to St. Lawrence Island and the Pribiloffs, and rare on the western Aleutians. Occasionally, larger fallouts of dozens of individuals occur when weather conditions are right. In any case, this Olive-backed Pipit was truly a special occurrence here, and a delight to watch.


The still photos in this post were digiscoped with a Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope, a Swarovski TLS-APO digiscoping adapter and a DSLR camera. The video was digiscoped with a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope, a Kowa TSN-DA10 digiscoping adapter and a micro-4/3 DSLR.

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