The Always Unexpected Lark

Barak Granit 17/04/2015 00:00


Some birders would claim that seeing a Dunn's Lark is not quite like hearing one, especially when it hovers above your head, full throat song, claiming its territory when 200 meters away another one does just the same, and then another one, and another one, and…

All that noise is taking place out of nowhere in the Negev, in a wadi that you never visited before, and hardly even heard its name, so remote that no birder ever goes there, where dozens  Temminck's Larks are preparing for breeding too and the males chasing each other… an unexpected dancing Houbara Bustard… a pair of Hoopoe Larks… Thick-billed… Bar-tailed… Crowned Sandgrouse… all playing their roll in that perfect theater set.


I was there, in Wadi Pichmi, in that unforgettable morning on March 2011, with my friend Shachar Alterman, and I still remember it vividly. To both Israeli and foreigners alike, experiences of this kind are rare. We are speaking here about THE DESERT, normally the most arid landscape, with little to no vegetation at all. A birdless wasteland that is suddenly filled with songs and feathers, larks with horns, larks with heavy bills, larks with Houbaras. And this place was green as green can be that morning. Green as English grass. An oasis with no water around, a mirage. But it was real.




Most of the time, in the Negev desert, rainless years can follow one another, deepening the drought with every dry year passing, making the habitat less and less suitable for birds and birders alike. So were the terrible years 2004-2009, when birds population simply shrank and other animals barely survived. But even the toughest drought someday ends with a thunder. And that's where nomadic Larks enter the picture.   

The Arabian Dunn's Lark Eremalauda eremodites is mainly resident throughout its distribution but also dispersive and partly migrating, and in better word - nomadic. Just like Thick-billed Lark Rhamphocoris clotbey it wanders looking for "green patches" in which to breed. There is an obvious correlation between Thick-Billed Lark "eruptions' in Israel and rainy seasons in the Negev Desert. Breeding was found for the first time in 1999 by Rami Lindroos and myself, and later, in the following rainy seasons of 2003 and 2010. Sometimes, a year following a rainy season, when seeds from the previous year bloom are plentiful, immense congregations of larks can happen leaving astounded witnessing birders-eyes.





A famous one was a gathering of 600 Thick-Billed Larks that Shachar and I saw in wadi Hayun in March 2011 (Following the rainy year of 2010). In the winter 1988-1989 hundreds or even thousands of Dunne's Larks invaded the Arava where they remained for winter and some pairs were found breeding for the first time in Israel (Shirihai 96). Just as with the Thick-billed larks, that invasion followed an exceptional rainy season the year before with one big difference: With the TBL, we assumed that the birds congregate from the nearby region, mainly from the Negev in which they successfully bred in quite many places.

With the Dunn's in 1988-9 there was no records during the previous wet season, so it is plausible they arrived all from Arabia.



I have no explanation why they haven't appeared the year before when the desert was green, but perhaps, Dunn's Larks and Thick-billed larks have different feeding habits and resource usage. For instance, in 1999 when we followed the first breeding pairs of the TBL, we noted that they fed the cheeks mainly on large and nutritious insects such as Praying Mantis Sphodromantis viridis which were abundant in the green grassy patches so perhaps different specialization in each species is reflected also by different nomadic strategy - an interesting idea for research (and I want to be credited…).  



Anigmatic as it was an invasion of this magnitude has never occurred again. The 1990's were an awful decade for Dunn's Lark in Israel, and they were found again breeding in small numbers only in April 2003 (James p Smith) and in 2010 and 2011 (Alterman, Perlman, Granit et al.)  


Much to the listers' dismay, the appearance of Black-crowned Finch Lark in Israel is even stranger and less predictable. The species shares the same habitat and distribution of the two previous species but it is far rarer than both. We only get one bird every several years with long gaps in between, sometimes more than a full decade. The closer it came to breed here, at least in the hopeful minds of local birders, was in winter 1988-89, when a small flock of 10 birds were found together with some dozens Dunn's Larks near Yahel (km 76). The birds remained till March but didn't breed. Who knows, maybe the current male BCFL at Se'ifim plain will show more enthusiasm.



Special as these larks are, as an Israeli birder, it is easy to forget how unique and priceless they are for our European kin birders. When I spent the late spring of 2001 at the Southern Arava, I received a daily phone call from Zurich, every morning in 05:45. It was Hadoram Shirihai, who was eager to know if we finally found any Black Bush Robin or Dunn's Lark, so that he could immediately call his Nobel Prize committee member client in Sweden and grab the first flight to Eilat to fill this itching gap in the client's WP list.

Hadoram really pushed it hard as only he knows, nagging me every morning. It finally worked with the Black Bush Robin, but no Dunn's Lark were found around. The Swiss client had to wait another 9 years before that final phone call finally got him here, on the very same day, in order to satisfy his hungry, never full, list.


Just larking around,



land marks