1st August 2018 Daniel Roca

Lark Land

Open country is lark country. Leaving aside the most densely forested regions and strict wetlands, the Alaudidae family is likely to have some representatives pretty much everywhere. Usually, though, the best places to look for larks are also home to other birds, more “spectacular” and colourful birds, that understandably take much of birder’s attention. Think of Bee-eater, Roller, Sandgrouses or Bustards, to name a few.

But larks are interesting and unique in their own way. If you have experienced a birding day in Lleida Plains during spring time, you probably recall all the beautiful songs that fill the air at all time; most of them are larks.

To the inexperienced eye, larks may all look the same. In most cases, larks don’t have very distinctive plumage features. A positive identification requires sometimes a remarkable attention to detail.

In Catalonia, some fields can hold up to 5 lark species, on the same spot! And 8 breed in the country. This means all European Larks except for Horned Lark. To find other lark species, one should travel to the Middle East, Central Asia or to North Africa.

Breeding Lark Species Map Catalonia
This map allows us to visualize where are the best habitats for larks in Catalonia. While most of the territory has only 1-3 breeding species  –mainly Crested Lark, Skylark and Woodlark–, the inland plains, belonging to the Ebro River Valley, concentrate all the species. Historically, all this region was a vast dry steppeland, but large areas have been transformed into intensive irrigated agriculture; the squares with fewer lark species at the center of this area reveal this –still ongoing– changes. The protection of the remaining steppe-like habitats is crucial for the survival of the most specialized larks, like Dupont’s Lark, as it is for many other birds.

Spring is undoubtedly the best time of the year to look for and enjoy larks. The temperature is pleasant and the fields are green, covered with flowers. Larks constant song-flights make it is easier to find them. Let’s take some time to acknowledge, one by one, these often underappreciated birds.

Short-toed Lark
Greater Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla). Scarce and declining in Catalonia, due to habitat loss. Its short but characteristic and constantly repeated song reveals its presence in spring. Song-flights are of great help when trying to locate these birds on extensive fields.

Lark habitat 1
Flat, dry and open agricultural land, and low vegetation fallow fields with a generous portion of bare ground is the perfect habitat for Greater Short-toed Lark.

Greater Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed lark comparison
Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella rufescens) to the left, and  Greater Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) to the right, side by side for a good comparison. Notice long tertials covering primary projection on Greater ST Lark but not on Lesser ST Lark (click to enlarge image). Also, much warmer brown tones on Greater, as well as a longer bill.

Lark habitat 3
Lesser Short-toed larks are found on arid plains with natural vegetation, often on dry saline flats.

Calandra Lark
Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra) is the biggest lark in the region. In flight, easily identifiable by its long wings edged white and all blackish underside. In spring they sing tirelessly from the air, often pretty high up. One must be careful when identifying larks just by ear, and Calandra Lark has a lot to do with it. While its song is very characteristic, its ability to imitate other birds, including other lark species, is so remarkable that double-checking is always advisable. When imitating, though, they tend to mix in some of their own songs and calls, thus revealing their true identity.

Lark habitat 4
Calandra and Crested Larks are often the only lark species that can cope with the loss of quality habitat, when non-irrigated agricultural land gets too monotonous by the absence of natural vegetation, wide enough field margins or fallow fields.

Crested lark, juvenile
Crested Lark (Galerida cristata), easily recognizable as a juvenile by pale fringed feathers. Also, tail and bill are still growing.

Crested Lark
Adult Crested Lark (Galerida cristata). This is the commonest lark species in the region, being able to adapt to almost any type of open country, excluding mountains. Compare remarkable bill length with previous picture and also with Thekla’s Lark.

Thekla's Lark
Thekla’s Lark (Galerida theklae), chooses areas with more natural vegetation than Crested Lark, and also likes barren rocky mountain slopes and dry bushy terrain.

Lark habitat 5
Thekla’s Lark is the only lark species likely to be found breeding in a habitat like this. Woodlark could select a similar type of land, but probably not so dry and rocky.

Dupont's Lark
Dupont’s Lark (Chersophilus duponti) is by far the rarest of the larks in the area and also the most difficult to see. It is reluctant to fly and prefers to quickly run away and hide among the low vegetation. Its unmistakable song, usually heard at dawn and dusk, is often the only sign of its presence.


Dupont’s Lark only lives on dry, low and natural vegetation, and flat or nearly flat terrain. This strict habitat selection is the main cause of its decline, as most of its historic range has been transformed into agriculture.

Woodlark
Woodlark (Lullula arborea) is the only lark species that can be found in forests, as long as they have at least some clearings. Its long white supercilium reaching rear head, as well as black-white pattern on primary coverts and shortish tail make its identification pretty straightforward.

Lark habitat 6
Lleida Plains host a great diversity of open country habitats. When fields are mixed with some trees or forest patches, Woodlark and even Skylark appear.


Skylark (Alauda arvensis) getting wet under the rain. As ID clues, notice long primary projection, white outer-tail feathers, and thin and pointed bill.

The last of the 8 lark species that can be found regularly in Catalonia. Not bad for such a small territory!

 

 

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