Colours of Wildlife: Shortclawed Lark

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Shortclawed Lark

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Shortclawed Lark by Willem

What I have for you today, is a bird that is near to my heart! This is a Shortclawed Lark, Certhilauda chuana. It is one of the 'specials' of my own region – the Polokwane plateau is the only place in South Africa where a bird-watcher has a good chance of seeing it. It occurs very erratically into the Northwest Province, the Northern Cape, and the northern Free State, but there is a substantial population in south-eastern Botswana.

The shortclawed lark is a challenge to identify. It can be confused with any number of other lark species, as well as some pipits. It is most similar to the Rufousnaped Lark, with which it co-occurs over its entire range. For bird-watchers, though, this challenge is the whole point. Having ID'd a rare and difficult species like this, leaves one with a deep sense of satisfaction.

My first and most pleasant encounters with this lark were in the mid-eighties. I had started serious bird-watching in 1985, when on a trip to the Kruger National Park my father had bought us some binoculars and a field guide and we set out to identify as many species as we could. In and around Polokwane itself there are many places to watch birds; in 1986 my father bought the lovely little book 'Where to Watch Birds in Southern Africa' to help us. The book mentioned the lark as being a special of the Polokwane Game Reserve. Well, we found it there, and also in the surrounding countryside. Back then, the region was mostly extensive and undisturbed grassland sparsely dotted with trees and bushes, ideal habitat for it.

But the challenge was to correctly ID the lark. In that, actually the big help was to learn to ID the one it can be confused with, the Rufousnaped Lark. The species is much more common around here and probably the first lark species you'll see in the veld. It is fairly confiding, often perching out in the open on a bush or termite hill. From its perch it sings its cheerful little song, especially during the spring and summer, a short sequence of notes with little variation, repeated at intervals. It will raise its head feathers into a small crest, and every now and then flutter its wing feathers, sometimes rising an inch or two from its perch, making a whirring sound complementing its song.

Once you've seen many rufousnaped larks and learnt their song and the way they display, you're ready to find a shortclawed lark. Seek for something that looks much like the rufousnaped, and also perches on top of a bush or low tree. Looking at it, it is a bit 'sleeker' than the rufousnaped, not showing a crest on its head. But when you listen to its song, the difference will emerge. It has a rather more 'lazy' song of what sound like lisped whistles, rather than the rich song of the rufousnaped. It doesn't have the whirring wing-claps, instead sometimes interspersing the singing with a little display in which it flutters up a few metres into the air and then dives down again while uttering a thin, drawn-out whistle, 'tseeeeeeee'. All in all it is a very relaxed-looking bird. Once you've seen several, you'll become capable of distinguishing it from rufousnaped larks on looks as well.

Otherwise, it is a rather typical lark. Larks are generally birds of open country, running around and finding their food on the ground. They are what is called 'cryptically' coloured, meaning that their colours and patterns are mostly for hiding them rather than for making them showy and conspicuous. They consequently have streaked or mottled plumage in browns, black and greys. In addition, their colours may even reflect the colour of the soil where they live, sometimes varying even in a single species according to region. Many lark species have greatly lengthened rear claws – this one does not, although it is not the only species with comparatively short hind claws. Larks prey mostly on insects, like small ground-living grasshoppers, crickets and beetles, although especially the thicker-billed species will also eat seeds. They nest on the ground, the eggs and chicks being as well-camouflaged as the adults. By far the greatest diversity of lark species occur on the continent of Africa, but they extend into Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Larks are found even in the driest of deserts. An admirable number of species occur in South Africa (25 or so out of a world total of about 85), where indeed new species are still being described and proposed – not so much all-knew species as populations that used to be considered as belonging to one species but which may merit recognition as distinct species.

Short-clawed larks are considered a vulnerable species with a small world population. They are very habitat-dependent, part of their requirements apparently being a specific soil type. In addition, they like grass not too long, and tree and bush cover not too tall or dense. They've been decreasing in the Polokwane Game Reserve, where previously they were quite frequent, because of encroachment of trees and bushes covering much of the original grassland. Strangely enough, outside of the reserve they flourish in regions with quite a number of humans and livestock, because the people taking firewood from the veld, the cattle grazing and trampling, and the goats cropping trees and bushes, keep the landscape open enough for them. In Botswana they're similarly associated with human-influenced rural environments. But a change in land use, such as more 'scientific' farming methods, or concentrated built-up settlements, may make large areas suddenly no longer optimal for them. They consequently need monitoring. There is at present no protected area specifically set aside for them. This species may appear rather unremarkable, and yet, when you get to know it, you realize how charming and unique it is. And like everything else on this planet, it deserves a chance at existence.

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