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Is that a Skylark or a Pipit?

Updated: Oct 5, 2022


Eurasian skylark New Zealand

Is that a skylark or a pipit? Skylarks and pipits are often difficult to distinguish for those new to birding and I've seen this question regularly asked on bird identification and photography pages over the years. It's not hard to see why as these two species have several things in common. To complicate the matter further the early scientific records described the Australasian pipit as the "New Zealand Lark"!

Both species share similar plain or drab streaked brown plumage (they're what bird photographers call LBJs - Little Brown Jobs), both species possess a long claw on their hind toe, both have similar facial patterning and they both live in open habitat. So, what are some of the tell tale signs we can use to tell these two species apart?

Recently I've spent some time photographing these two species and thought I would share some images as well as briefly point out some features that can help distinguish them apart.

Please note that the skylark doesn't always have their crest erect and visible.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE (Click the images below for a closer look)

A wildlife image showing the main differences between skylarks and pipits.
A wildlife image showing the main differences between skylarks and pipits.

These physical differences can be often hard to identify at a distance in the field so often it is their behaviour that gives the species away. Fortunately they both have unique behaviours that can make identification a little easier.

Skylarks may be described as 'drab' or 'plain'; although the same can't be said for their vocals. The glorious sounds of a singing skylark have perhaps inspired more English poetry and music than any other bird. Their melodious song has been described as 'sunshine translated into sound'. During the Spring male skylarks can be seen performing elaborate aerial displays where they sing while fluttering high above the ground. The photo below shows a male skylark hovering above the ground in this display (note the round and broad wings).

A male skylark hovers above the ground in an aerial display
Male skylark fluttering display | 1/800sec | f/8 | ISO800 | Manual
An Australasian pipit bobbing up and down while flicking its long tail.

Pipits on the other hand are not known for their lengthy hovering songs. They're better known for their stylish dance move - the bop! Pipits regularly bop up and down flicking their long tails. Their name pīhoihoi refers to this rapidly repeated movement. Like many native New Zealand birds the pīhoihoi are bold birds often allowing for a close approach from the photographer; whereas skylarks are much more cryptic when on the ground and walk much slower keeping low and sticking to cover.

If you've had trouble distinguishing between these two birds try and see if you can identify the bird in the photos below - try not to peek at the image titles first!



LBJ or 'Little Brown Job' is an informal name used by birdwatchers and wildlife photographers to describe small brown birds. Perhaps the most famous example of an LBJ is the common house sparrow. Creating impactful and aesthetic images of plain or drab looking birds can be difficult and can create a real challenge for wildlife photographers.

When photographing LBJs such as pipits and skylarks it becomes even more important to do one or more of the following three things (1) captivate your audience with light, (2) captivate your audience with the surrounding environment, and/or (3) captivate your audience with behaviour!

(1) Captivate your audience with light

LBJs such as skylarks and pipits don't possess the brilliant colours and iridescence of the Kōtare or tui; therefore when photographing LBJs think about how you can use the light to elevate your photographs. Add colour by photographing in the golden or blue hours; add drama by photographing backlit or side lit or think about capturing high-key or low-key images. How can you use the light to make your LBJ photos pop?!

(2) Captivate your audience by including your subjects surroundings!

Is the environment more visually appealing than the bird? If so, champion it! Including the environment is a great way to not only add story by providing context but it can also visually elevate your LBJ photos! Have a think about the angle you choose to photograph your subject - how will the scene change if you move left, right, higher or lower? In the photo below I've chosen to photograph this pipit using a wide angle lens and remote triggers to showcase its beautiful natural habitat.

A wide angle wildlife photograph of an Australasian pipit photographed in New Zealand.

(3) Captivate your audience by capturing interesting behaviour!

Capturing behaviour is a great way to add another layer of visual impact to your images! Despite their plain appearance skylarks have inspired poets and musicians worldwide due to their melodious songs and unique flight behaviour - so capturing their unique behaviour is a great way to create meaningful and impactful images! Begin by asking yourself: What behaviour makes your LBJ unique or interesting? and, How can I capture that behaviour in a visually appealing way?

Remember: just because your subject is visually plain doesn't mean your photographs have to be!
A Australasian pipit walking up a mossy rock showing its large hind toe.
A male skylark hovers above the ground in an aerial display
A Eurasian skylark hiding in the long grass at sunset.
A Eurasian skylark singing at sunset on the shore of Lake Ellesmere New Zealand.
A New Zealand pipit landing on fried fox glove flower head hunting spiders.

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