Four Yorkshirelarks

Barak Granit 25/02/2015 00:00

A second before the real spring starts (It has already started but let's not get too fussy) I intended to write something about Thick-billed Lark.

Once an enigmatic species, it represents something that is rooted in the birders minds and fantasies, especially in those who visited Israel during the springs of the 80's and 90's.


Instead of writing another boring informative piece - especially now when everyone knows everything there is to know - I thought of focusing on a painful aspect well familiar to anyone that is in this business long enough: how, once a vivid fantasy, becomes just another familiar boring thing…no…no… I don’t want you readers to take antidepressants while you read it. Let's do it the other way around. Let's go back in time to the times when these larks were out of reach.  





21 years back if to be precise. The year is 1994. The place: Eilat. Time of year: mid March. Who was there? 18 years old me, 18 years old Yoav Perlman, 29 years old James P. Smith and some 12 other birders who all lived in a shoe-box with half-floor missing, huddled together in one corner for fear of falling, as Graham Chapman said in the famous Monty Python sketch "Four Yorkshireman".


This description fits quite nicely the reality of the IBRCE apartment back then. And there was a rat, and it was bloody dirty, and people were sleeping in the balcony or in the "living room" (or "kitchen") and there were no Internet or cellular phones, but "we were happy though we were poor…because we were poor!"



And in those days if you found something good you'd have to spread the news by foot, and only in the evening when everyone else would be back in the apartment, if you could call it an apartment. For example that was how we heard of the first Diederick Cuckoo for Israel that was found by one of us, Mark Lawlor on March 12ve, and in the same fashion, the next evening we learned about a flock of 60 Temminck's Horned Larks that landed for a short while in an open area were today the bird park is located.


Those days none of us were familiar with such numbers. To most, including me, Temminck's Lark was a new species. Thick-billed lark was not in our mind at all, and until then, only Hadoram and handful lucky foreigners had seen that sought-after ghost. And no one was saying loudly the name of Dunn's Lark.


The next evening news spread that the km 33 got exploded by larks, with some 200 Teminck's Larks, hundreds of Lesser Short-toed Larks, many Bimaculated, quite a few Hoopoe Larks (that were still breeding there) and dozens of Pale Rock Sparrows.

But above all there were rumors of the name you shouldn't mention: Thick-Billed and Dunn's Larks. Some foreigners claimed to see both. Oh my god…





The thing was, that if you were a volunteer, you either spent your day in Eilat mountains counting raptors (if you were lucky to have any) or you were helping at the ringing station. You only had a day off once a week.


So on the following morning it was my turn to count raptors from the coral beach post, where no raptor pass at all, and I was about to remember that trauma for the rest of my life, since all the other birders that manned the other 3 stations saw a Verreaux's Eagle while those who went to km 33 had 3 Thick-billed and 1 Dunn's… I can't forget how one of us, a Scottish birder called Gordon (can't recall his last name) described how thick was that bill. So thick that the lark had some difficulties to take off.

Three Thick-billed Larks… I can't even start to describe the experience of even hearing that these birds were not far from where I were that same day… The birders of today won't understand …It was something that just doesn't happen and you wouldn't believe that can happen. Beyond fantasy. Holiness mixed with awe.


The next day it was my turn to visit km 33 and although have seen there amazing new sights, such as 600 Lesser Short-toed Larks or 10 Hoopoe Larks and all the rest, the two phantoms were not to be found. I miss those days with no technology when seeing species like these was still a matter of enormous luck.



A year later, March 1st 1995, the unfinished business with the Dunn's Lark was settled when two birds were wintering in km 33. March 1996, once again I dipped a flock of 10 Thick-billed Larks that were seen flying by, by a friend of mine in km 33 while I was there! A moment you want to tear off your hair off.

Verreaux's Eagle came to say hi to me in March 1997.


In March 1999, James P. Smith had his luck with 45 Thick-billed Larks near the Egyptian border, flying by of course. I was about to lose hope when I finally figured out that the combination of March, Thick-billed lark and I was probably wrong.


So in April that year Rami Lindroos and I found them breeding for the first time (but not the last) in Israel.

What a celebration that was! Finally, hordes of Israeli birders whose name was not Hadoram, could erase that species from their bogey bird list.



March 2010 - Wadi Hayun     Photo: Barak Granit



The end of the 90's ended an era.


In the recent decade Thick-billed Lark was more common than it used to be.

Although I had to wait another 11 years before I saw them once again, it was all a different kind of experience when Shachar Alterman and I were shocked to find some 600 of them in Wadi Hayun in March 2010,


including a peculiar behavior when 150 birds were huddled together on one small rock, fear of falling…

or as Michel Palin ended that sketch: "But you try and tell the young people today that… and they won't believe ya".    





















land marks