Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 8 November 2023
This is the first article in a series on Southern Africa inspired by a birding trip to Namibia, Botswana and Victoria Falls with Rockjumper and two safaris To Chobe National Park in Botswana with Kalahari Tours and Kruger National Park in South Africa with Lion Roar Safaris.
A Lark in Africa
- What are Larks?
- What are LBJs?
- Stark’s Lark, Sabota Lark and Dune Lark
This is not a humorous adventure, but about a bird or birds for that matter called larks. Although, perhaps it is light-hearted.
We undertook an 18-day birding tour in Namibia and Botswana with a firm called Rockjumper in September-October 2023. The tour ended in Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe).
I will be writing a series of small articles on our African adventure, showcasing photographs. But, I am beginning with a most unlikely one on small birds called larks.
One in particular Stark’s Lark (pronounced in a ponderous manner) took my fancy early on. We found it always in such bleak or unpromising surroundings that one wondered how it could live there. We saw Stark’s Lark early in the first few days of the trip (on four different days). We also saw the Sabota Lark, a more ubiquitous lark, most frequently on the trip on seven different days. Other species (11) we saw less frequently.
I am not a bird expert, certainly a beginner compared to our companions on the tour (with the exception of Denise who is my standard), and was not aware of larks much previously, beyond the name, nor aware that I had ever seen one.
Lark’s were thrust upon us in the first few days of the tour and seemed both difficult to identify and very similar to one another.
In desperation perhaps, beyond my comfort zone, I focussed on Stark’s Lark the one with the bulging eyes, according to our guide Greg, and became quite fond of it.
None of the lark’s we saw are particularly striking in looks, with the possible exception of the Dune Lark and the Red-capped Lark.
We have only one lark in Australia, Horsfield’s Bush Lark (also found in Southeast Asia), but I can’t say that I have ever knowingly seen one. (The familiar Magpie Lark in Australia is not a lark.)
There are 21 genera and around 100 species of larks. Apart from Africa, nearly all of the remaining larks are found in the old world or Eurasia.
2 What are larks?
Larks are passerine (sparrow-like) birds of the family Alaudidae. Larks are widely distributed with the largest number of species occurring in Africa.
Only a single species, the Horned Lark, occurs in North America, and only Horsfield’s Bush Lark occurs in Australia. Habitats vary widely, but many species live in dry regions (Wikipedia).
Larks are small to medium-sized birds from 12 to 24 cm in length and 15 to 75 g in mass. The larks we saw in Southern Africa were mostly at the small end of the scale. For example Stark’s Lark is 13.5 cm, 18 g; the Sabota Lark is 14.5 cm, 23 g.
The Dune Lark at 17.5 cm, 28 g; the rufous-naped lark 17 cm, 44 g; and the Karoo Long-billed Lark 20 cm, 42 g are slightly larger than the other species we saw.
Larks are largely monogamous. Females do the majority of the nest building, incubation and brooding. Both adults take part in feeding the young.
Most species build nests on the ground, usually cups of dead grass, but in some species the nests are more complicated and partly domed. A few desert species nest very low in bushes, perhaps so that circulating air can cool the nest. Larks’ eggs are usually speckled. The size of the clutch is very variable. Larks incubate the eggs for 11 to 16 days.
2.2 Mating and Song
Males perform display flights (high undulating flights accompanied by singing). Larks have more elaborate calls than most birds and often have extravagant songs given in display flights. They may also display with crests, ruffle their plumage, and bow or hop up and down. Males also sing from prominent perches. Larks are territorial and defend the nest site using song and flight displays.
Lark song is pleasing to humans.
Like many ground birds, most lark species have long hind claws, which are thought to provide stability while standing. Most have streaked brown plumage, some are boldly marked with black or white. Males and females are often similar. Their dull appearance in general camouflages them on the ground and in open or grassland settings, especially when on the nest.
They feed on insects and seeds. Adults of most species eat seeds primarily but include insects in their diet. These species, perhaps, switch more to insects during breeding. All species feed their young on insects for at least the first week after hatching. Some species specialise in eating invertebrates.
Many species dig with their bills to uncover food. Some larks have heavy bills for cracking seeds open, while others have long, down-curved bills, which are especially suitable for digging.
2.5 Human Interaction
Larks have a prominent place in literature and music in Europe. Symbolically they are associated with lovers, daybreak and religious observance. They were often kept as pets in China.
Unfortunately, they have also been eaten quite regularly, consumed with bones intact, as wholesome, delicate and light game. In modern times shrinking habitats have made lark meat rare and hard to come by. Nonetheless, lark can be found in restaurants in Italy and elsewhere in southern Europe.
Lark’s tongue pie reputed as the ultimate extravagance or decadence in Imperial Rome is probably apocryphal. The dish may have been served once or twice, but certainly was never regular fare amongst wealthy Romans.
3 What are LBJs?
LBJ is a slightly derogatory term used by birders for Little Brown Jobs or birds that are small and hard to identify. LBJs tend to terrify beginners and even intermediate birders, and those who have perhaps given up birding for a while and are coming back to it.
In Australia LBJs are typified by thornbills, but there are many others. In Southern Africa the lark complex is an example of difficult LBJs, but there are other family groups as well. For our party, even the experts, the larks were difficult.
Greg our guide introduced us to an excellent book that he kept on the vehicle’s dashboard entitled: Chamberlain’s LBJs: The Definitive Guide to Southern Africa’s Little Brown Jobs by Faansie Peacock, 2012. This is a fabulous guide to Southern Africa’s LBJs with an informative, comprehensive and sensible approach to understanding and identifying these birds. Faansie Peacock demonstrates that almost a quarter of Southern Africa’s birds fall into the LBJ category.
Faansie’s guide to the larks was brilliant. Unfortunately, the birding on our journey was intense and we didn’t have the luxury or the leisure to consult Faansie in detail so that we had to muddle on the best we could with Greg’s professional help.
4 Three Southern African Larks
I mentioned above that we saw 13 species of larks. We missed three of the 16 species available to see on our trip.
4.1 Stark’s Lark (Spizocorys starki)
I had an affinity for Stark’s Lark (13.5 cm, 18 g) and enjoyed observing it on each occasion available. We saw it several times over four separate days and were amazed at the habitat we found it in. Typically though I managed only one decent photograph on my Lumix FZ60, a somewhat difficult camera (see below).
Stark’s lark is a pallid bird found in the arid zone from northwestern South Africa and up the western half of Namibia. We first saw it in the Namib Desert (which with South America’s Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth). Starks’ Lark seemed quite adapted to extremely dry conditions, favouring calcrete, gravelly and stony areas, where it appeared to find seeds.
When non-breeding it is nomadic moving in small to large flocks to where there has been recent rainfall. We only saw it in small groups. The diet of Stark’s Lark is 77% seeds, 19% arthropods and around 4% green vegetation. It has physiological mechanisms for reducing evaporative water loss. And, crouches in shade at the hottest times of day, which we did observe.
(refer to Roberts Bird Guide)
4.2 Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota)
The Sabota Lark (14.5 cm, 23 g) is a common lark with a much broader range across much of southern Africa than Stark’s Lark has. We saw it more frequently than other larks. Indeed, Denise and I and our safari guide were pleased with ourselves in identifying it in Kruger National Park.
I was not particularly interested initially in the Sabota Lark but my photographs of one particular lark grooming reversed that view and endeared it to me. I hope the photographs show why. Please excuse the anthropomorphisms.
Roberts Guide calls it the quintessential bushveld lark. Identified by its bold white eyebrow. It’s habitat is savanna especially thornveld and shrubby semi-desert. It generally avoids savanna on deep sands.
In the circa Namib area its diet consists of 40% insects and 60% seeds; grass seeds make up to 69% of seeds eaten. It is not known to drink, apparently obtaining sufficient water from food and metabolic water.
(refer to Roberts Bird Guide)
4.3 Dune Lark (Calendulauda erythrochlamys)
We had to get up and leave around 5.30 am from Walvis Bay and drive for 40-min to try to see the Dune Lark (17.5 cm, 28 g). The fog was dense on the way, but cleared slightly when we arrived. According to Greg, we only had a half-hour window of opportunity at dawn, when the Dune Larks were calling, to see the small birds. They are found in pairs.
Stephen Kierniesky, the main photographer on our trip, kindly allowed me to use his photograph of the Dune Lark. Although not immediately obvious, his photographs are of a high professional standard on superb equipment, unlike my own which are really only suitable for web publication.
We were fortunate and had good views of 2-3 pairs. They were prettier birds than appeared in Roberts Guide but the fog, excitement and early morning may also have contributed. The sexes are alike.
The Dune Larks didn’t much like being in the open and scuttled from vegetation patch to vegetation patch.
During the heat of the day, the birds hide under dense vegetation. They forage mainly in the morning and late afternoon for insects, seeds and plant matter. They are not known to drink.
The Dune Lark’s range is quite restricted, but it is not endangered. However, it is possibly vulnerable to climate change. It is confined to small, low dunes of the Namib desert south of Walvis Bay.
(refer to Roberts Bird Guide)
The larks’ in Southern Africa all exhibit a similar ecological niche, lifestyle and habitats but with different behaviours, distributions and feeding choices. Most of the 31 larks found in southern Africa are not threatened.
Of those 7 species that are vulnerable, threatened, or critically endangered, it is usually because of restricted range, fragmentation and habitat loss due to grazing or agriculture.
Habitat loss is the major cause of bird decline globally as all birders know, but less so the general public.
When examined closely, the larks are fascinating birds and well-worth studying. As with virtually everything in nature close examination reveals attributes that are not obvious otherwise.
I hope you enjoyed this small foray into the lives of larks.
I used a Panasonic Lumix FZ60, which I wasn’t happy with. Some of the problems were of my own making but some are inherent in the camera.
Despite that and the general lens quality issues on all fixed lens cameras. I am reasonably happy with the results, at least those that were in focus.
Stephen Kierniesky, by contrast not only brought along a professional gear, but also put in the time taking superb photographs. He used a Nikon D850 with a Nikon 600 mm lens.
He took wonderful photographs of the birds and wildlife we saw (see links below).
Lark, Southern Africa, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namib Desert, Atacama Desert, Stark’s Lark, Sabota Lark, Dune Lark, Red-capped Lark, passerine, Alaudidae, family, genus, species, appearance, breeding, feeding, mating, song, Roberts Bird Guide, LBJ, Little Brown Job, Chamberlain’s LBJs, Faansie Peacock, Etosha National Park, Walvis Bay, Rooibank, Stephen Kierniesky
I‘ve kept the taxonomy of larks to a minimum on purpose Wikipedia, Chamberlain’s LBJs and other sources on the Internet provide details for those interested.
Roberts Bird Guide 2 App and Roberts Bird Guide 2nd Edition by Hugh Chittenden , Greg Davies and Ingrid Weiersbye, 2016.
Chamberlain’s LBJs: The Definitive Guide to Southern Africa’s Little Brown Jobs by Faansie Peacock, 2012.
Wikipedia on Larks. The general description of larks comes mainly from Wikipedia and a couple of other Internet sources.
Birds and animals of Southern Africa, Photographs by Stephen Kierniesky
If you want to have a look at the birds and other animals of Southern Africa that we saw on the trip, Stephen Kierniesky has posted photographs that can be accessed on Exposure using the following links:
I bought my Lumix FZ60 in 2019 for a trip to America. It is a compromise bridge camera decided upon because I felt that I was getting too old to carry a heavy SLR and lens overseas with me. I wasn’t happy with it in America and had it repaired under warranty (the zoom) after the trip.
I also hadn’t used the Lumix for over a year and didn’t brush up on it before heading for Southern Africa. Hence I struggled with the zoom function, which is a beast at the best of times and with the automatic focus. On the trip I just didn’t have the time to resolve the problems. Subsequently, on the Internet I’ve found that this has been an issue for others and can perhaps be rectified or resolved, which I will attempt to do.
Published in Canberra