During the past few years I have studied African Rock Pipits vocalizations and behaviour in various localities in South Africa and Lesotho. This species is endemic and has a continuous distribution range along the main escarpment, with a few isolated populations in the Northern Cape and also in the Gauteng area (near Suikerbosrand in the Nigel area).
This is a mountainous species associated with mountain ranges, isolated hilly areas and escarpments where they prefer rocky hills with open areas with adequate grass cover and boulders which are used as song posts. The males mostly perch on a large rock boulder from where their early morning song can be heard. The species also nests in the grass between the rocks where the nest has been built in a grass tuft. This species was recently classified as “Near Threatened” by the “Eskom Red Data Book of Birds”. Small populations in isolated mountain ranges are considered to be vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and the species may suffer range contractions in the future because of their isolation.
During the past few years, as part of a study to obtain sound recordings of African Rock Pipits at various localities, populations of the Northern Cape (Tswalu Kalahari and Groblershoop area) as well as several localities where this species occurs in mountain ranges in the Middelburg, Cradock, Beaufort West, Barkley East were visited. African Rock Pipits song comprises of a two-syllable “whee-phreeuu” vocalization, repeated several times during a song bout – the period when the call is repeated. In one song bout recorded in the Cradock area, the bird was singing for more than 40 minutes after responding to a song playback.
Two main song types are vocalized; a whistle with a horizontal trilling song and a song where the trilling of the song has a downward frequency. In some instances both song types were vocalized in a single singing bout. Song phrases from different populations varied in the structures of the song components of the whistle- like sound. A pipit male, recorded at Lundin’s Neck Pass, Barkley East, showed territorial behaviour and one of the song phrases was vocalized without the typical downward trill whistle, and continued with normal song type, a drawn-out trilling, with all components in its song. The whistle was also audibly similar to that of the Eastern Long-billed Lark, which shares the same habitat as the pipits.
To obtain high quality sound recordings of African Rock Pipits, commercial or private song recordings of this species are played in attempts to locate singing birds or to come closer to them. In most cases, especially during the breeding season, pipit males responded very quickly to song playbacks, and came close to the observer. It was thus possible to witness interesting behaviour associated with their singing. One bird at a Beaufort West locality during November 2017 was observed for more than a half hour, where it was sitting on low bushes and hopping from rock to rock in the short grassy area on the mountain slope. The bird would then hop on the rocks with its wings dropped and tail raised in territorial responses after playback of its vocalizations. It would fly towards the observer, to a rock or bush perch, and start to vocalize.
This study suggests that the song differences between different pipit populations may be attributed to the isolation of populations in the mountain ranges and isolated hills separated by kilometres of unsuitable grassland / karoo habitats. Furthermore, the Northern Cape populations of the Tswalu Kalahari, Groblershoop and other small isolated areas in the Northern Cape are separated by more than 280 kilometres from the main distribution range in the Free State and surrounding areas. Preliminary research also showed a possible grouping of this species’ songs based on sonogram analysis in the main biomes where they occur – grassland, nama-karoo and Kalahari biomes. Further investigations are in progress to obtain DNA material from the Northern Cape populations and to compare those with DNA of the species in other parts of their range in the Free State, Eastern Cape and southern parts of the Northern Cape.
- de Swardt, D.H. 2010. Individual and inter-population variation in African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus pp. 105–112. In: Harebottle, D.M., Craig, A.J.F.K., Anderson M.D., Rakotomanana H., Muchai M. (eds). Proceedings of the 12th Pan-African Ornithological Congress, 2008. Cape Town, Animal Demography Unit.
- de Swardt D.H. 2014. Territorial behaviour and vocalisations of African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus at Lundin’s Neck, Barkly East. Ornithological Observations 5: 248-250.
- de Swardt D.H. 2017. Living in isolation – observations on African Rock Pipits in the Northern Cape. Biodiversity Observations 8. 13: 1 – 6.
Photo credits: Dawie de Swardt