You are currently viewing Pipits, Wagtails and Longclaws in East Africa
Sokoke Pipit a rare coastal species

Pipits, Wagtails and Longclaws

Order: Passeriformes
is the largest order of birds in the Class Aves. It contains over 140 families with 6.500 identified bird species world wide. They are also called perching birds. 3 toes point forward, 1 backwards called hallux and is long. This is called anisodactyl arrangement. This toe constellation makes it easier to hold on to a branch, twig, wire or blade of grass.

A further adaptation for perching is a tendon running on the rear side of the leg to the underside of the toes is attached to the muscle behind the Tibiotarsus (the large bone between femur and tarsometatarsus). This makes their feet curl automatically once the leg is bent and becomes stiff when landing on a branch. So they can sleep without falling down and using valuable energy. More

Passerines are mostly insectivorous or omnivorous meaning feeding on insects, small vertebrates, fruits, seeds and nectar. Omnivorous birds change to more carnivorous during breeding season. Plant material has less protein which is required for the chicks to grow fast and strong.

The name Passeriformes derives from Greek – Passer = Sparrow, Formis = shape. They originated in the Southern Hemisphere around 60 Mio years ago.
Most Passerines have 12 tail feathers.

The eggs are coloured in most species. The number of eggs vary from species to species. The chicks are altricial meaning they hedge blind, without feathers and are helpless. They have reflexes to sense when a parent is landing and open their beak wide to get fed. The beak is fringed with yellow skin to signal the feeding parent where to place food.

Family Motacillidae – Wagtails, Pipits and Longclaws

The family has around 70 species in 5 genera.

Most members in the family Motacillidae are ground feeding and insectivorous. The have slender bodies and are medium seized from 14 to 17 cm length. Both sexes have the same seize.

Since the various genera of Wagtails, Pipits and Longclaws have different distribution ranges, habits and demands to their habitat we describe each genus.
Special in the members of this family is that the tertials (flight feathers) on the wing entirely cover the primary flight feathers.

The bill is long, slender, slightly curved and pointed. There is hardly any sexual dimorphism.

Wagtails – genus Motacilla

As the name says they constantly move the tail up and down no matter if they walk or stand still. Some Wagtails are migrants like the White Wagtail or Yellow Wagtail, some are resident birds. They can be found from sea level up to 3.000 m. Often they are found in rivers standing on stones or wood, near water bodies or after rain also in gardens where they pick insects. Some even run after their prey and that pretty fast. The nest is built on the ground and both parents raise the chicks.

Several Wagtail species are split into a good number of subspecies. Not all of them are found in Africa. We will indicate which Wagtail species is found in East Africa. The genus found in Africa is Motacilla

Longclaws are mainly yellow birds with conspicuous colours on their throat. The characteristic and what gave them the name is the really long hind claw. 

The genus Macronyx = Longclaw is endemic to Africa.

They catch insects on the ground and on bushes. The nest with up to 4 speckled eggs is on the ground. Some Longclaws have restricted distribution areas. Endangered is Sharpe’s Longclaw with far below 20.000 individuals in parts of Central and Western Kenya. It isn’t registered outside Kenya. We know where to find it.

The Golden Pipit / Tmetothylacus tenellus is the only one in this genus but belongs also to the family Motacillidae.

Pipits are usually brownish birds which look very alike making identification sometimes challenging. Several species are split into subspecies. World wide are about 40 species in the genus Anthus.

They are small seized birds 16 – 21 cm – with medium to long tails. Some of them have a very erect pose on a small elevation. They are territorial as Longclaws. Their diet consists of insects of different kind which they catch on the ground. Pipits are monogamous. Few species are migrants. They look a bit like larks but are standing more upright and have white outer feathers on their tail. They sing from the ground, elevated places or from a branch.

To give you as actual information as possible we use Avibase, the books “Birds of Africa South of the Sahara”, “Birds of East Africa”, “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania”. Then we put the most characteristic information to the photo.

You can also follow us on Facebook “Bird photography Safaris Kenya” and see the numerous species as well as the beautiful photos from Lorenzo Barelli.
Click on the photo for larger view. The names of the photographers are on the photo and in the text. Without the generosity of several amazing bird photographers it had not been possible to create the pages with so many illustrated bird species. Those photos without name are from Elvira Wolfer.

Here you find samples of our birding safaris. Most of the members of the family Motacillidae are widespread so you have good chances to find several species. The exemptions are mentioned where we describe the species.

African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp vidua) is wide spread in Africa except very dry regions and rain forests. It is the most common species. Photos Lorenzo Barelli and Elvira Wolfer

White Wagtail (Motacilla a. alba) is a scarce palearctic migrant to East Africa from November to March. Photo of a male in breeding plumage from Lorenzo Barelli

Cape Wagtail or Well’s Wagtail (Motacilla capensis wellsi) occurs in the highlands 900 – 3.000 m of DRC, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Nairobi area

Mountain Wagtail / Long-tailed Wagtail / Grey-backed Wagtail (Motacilla clara torrentium) can be found as low as 500 m but more common higher up. They like fast flowing streams and forest edges where rocky outcrops aren’t far. The nominate form is found in W Uganda.

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla c. cinerea) is a migrant from Eurasia to East African Highland from September to March. They prefer being close to highland rivers. Photo Jacques Pitteloud

Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) when they arrive in Africa in October their breeding colours have already faded. It is often very difficult to differentiate the different subspecies. 1st year and females look very alike. They are often associated with herbivores. Hooves chase insects and the Wagtails pick them. We just show some subspecies which are clear.

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava thunbergi). Photo Per Holmen

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava leucocephala). Photo Per Holmen

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava lutea). Photo Jacques Pitteloud

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flava). Photo Jacques Pitteloud

Yellowthroated Longclaw (Macronyx c. croceus) is found in grassland in E Africa in Central and W Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and NW Tanzania. The subspecies M. c. tertius is at the coast and S Tanzania.

Pangani Longclaw (Macronyx aurantiigula) is endemic to coastal Somalia, drier areas of Kenya and N + NE Tanzania. It is found from sea level to 1.800 m and is locally common. Taita Hills and Ngorongoro Crater

Fülleborn’s Longclaw (Macronyx f. fuelleborni) is endemic to Southern Central Africa. It is mainly found from 1.900 – 2.600 m in grassland and around marshy areas in SW Tanzania. Photo Per Holmen, Kisolanza, Tanzania

Rosy-breasted or Rosy-throated Longclaw (Macronyx ameliae wintoni) occurs from 600 – 2.200 m in damp grassland from Central Kenya to N Tanzania. The subspecies M. a. altanus is slight more heavily streaked and lives in SW Tanzania. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, Nairobi National Park

Sharpe’s Longclaw (Macronyx sharpei) is endemic and uncommon in Kenya from Mt. Elgon to Central highlands from 1.850 – 3.400 m. The species is endangered! They are often associated with Tussock grass. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, Aberdare region

Golden Pipit (Tmetothylacus tenellus) lives in dry bushy country from sea level to 1.800 m in S South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and E Tanzania. They often migrate within that region.

Striped Pipit (Anthus lineiventris stygium) occurs near rocky hills with open woodland below 2.000 m in Tanzania, SW Kenya and W Uganda. Photo Lorenzo Barelli

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus lacuum) is very common in open grassland in SE Uganda, W Kenya South to C Tanzania. Ol Pejeta Conservancy

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus annae) is in open grassland in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, E Kenya, NE Tanzania. Watamu

The other 4 subspecies of African Pipit: : A. c. lichenya – DRC, W Uganda to W Tanzania, A. c. spurium in SE Tansania, A. c. winterbottomi in S Tanzania, A. c. latistriatus (Jackson’s Pipit) is much darker with cinnamon coloured underpart in highlands of SW Uganda, NW Tanzania and W Kenya. The species occurs from 0 to 3.400 m.

Long-billed Pipit or Brown Rock Pipit (Anthus similis hararensis) belongs to the highlands of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and N Tanzania. Lone birds or pairs near rocky outcrops. Photo Per Holmen, Ngorongoro area.

Anthus similis dewitti is similar but slightly smaller and darker. Its distribution area is in SW Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda

Nairobi Pipit / Long-billed Pipit (Anthus similis chyuluensis) is the subspecies found from Nairobi to Chyulu Hills region, also part of N Tanzania. It flies up on trees and walks on branches when flushed. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, Nairobi National Park

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys zenkeri) is a common bird in short grassland from 700 – 2.200 m in W Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and NW Tanzania. Lewa Conservancy

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys godsoni) is found from C Kenya to N Tanzania. Masai Mara. The subspecies A. l. bohndorffi occurs in SW Tanzania

Buffy Pipit (Anthus vaalensis chobiensis) lives in grassland in SW Tanzania from 1.000 – 2.500 m. Photo Per Holmen, SW Tanzania

Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris) is a very uncommon palearctic migrant to Kenya and Uganda. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, North Macedonia

Malindi Pipit (Anthus m. melindae) is endemic to the coast in Somalia and Kenya on seasonal flooded grass plains. The subspecies A. m. mallablensis is endemic to inland Somalia. Arabuko Sokoke

Tree Pipit (Anthus t. trivialis) is a common palearctic visitor and passage migrant from October to May from 700 – 3.000 m. They favour open woodland. Aberdare range

Red-throated Pipit (Anthus cervinus) breeds in the Tundra and Alaska and spends the North winter from East to West Africa in damp grassland from 0 – 3.000 m. Amboseli National Park

Bushveld Pipit / Bush Pipit / Little Pipit (Anthus caffer blayneyi) is an uncommon, local, small pipit found from SW Kenya to E Tanzania 0 – 2.200 m.

Sokoke Pipit (Anthus sokokensis) is endemic in undisturbed coastal forest SW Kenya and NW Tanzania. Due to habitat loss the species is threatened. It is a difficult bird to spot. It feeds on the ground and flies up a branch when disturbed. Photo Jacques Pitteloud

Short-tailed Pipit (Anthus brachyurus leggei) is the subspecies found in EA in SW Uganda, NW Tanzania and Iringa region.

Woodland Pipit (Anthus n. nyassae) can be found in Miombo Forest in W and SW Tanzania. It flies up on trees and walks along branches when flushed out.