Largely about larks
|Thekla Lark (Caroline Davison)|
Particularly in the traditionally-farmed plains, larks are common birds in Extremadura and we can enjoy the presence of five species in the spring and summer, and five species too in the winter. There are six species in all, with the wintering Skylark swapping its place in our lark community with the Greater Short-toed Lark, a summer visitor. The time of overlap between these two species in March and September is so short that one is lucky indeed to find both at the same time. Some Skylark do nest in Extremadura, but only high above the tree-line on the Gredos Mountains.
A guest of ours, Caroline Davison, took the fine study of the Thekla Lark above. The species was named by the 19th century German ornithologist, Christian Ludwig Brehm in memory of his daughter Thekla who died when she was just 26. It is a species with a curiously disjunct distribution, confined largely to the Iberian Peninsular and north-west Africa, with another population in the Horn of Africa. It is more common in Extremadura than many people realize, in much of the steppic habitat outnumbering the very similar Crested Lark. However, these two species can be hard to separate, indeed the more experienced the observer is, the more careful she or he will be: with experience comes the realization that there is considerable variation within the two species and some overlap between some of the field characters. Caroline's photo shows beautifully the rather short, straight bill of the Thekla, its almost goggled-appearance caused by pale feathers around the eye, the well-defined dark streaks on the breast and its greyish-brown plumage tone. The picture also shows very well the extremely long hind claw, which is a curious feature of many species of lark, as well as pipits. On a hot, dusty track in summer it is common to find the footprints of larks, easily told by the impression left behind by this appendage.
The Crested Lark below, whilst sporting like the Thekla a rather stiff crest, is a somewhat slenderer bird, with more sandy-brown plumage and a bill which is longer and very slightly curved. Its breast streaking is more diffuse and it lacks the rather rusty tone to the base of the rump shown by Thekla.
|Crested Lark (John Hawkins)|
|Calandra Lark (John Hawkins)|
In the mosaic landscape of the high dry plains, one does not have to look far for a field ploughed and left to rest, or the bare earth of the strip running beside the boundary of a meadow, which acts as a fire-break. This is the favoured habitat of the smallest of the larks, the Greater Short-toed, which can often also be seen on the sun-baked surface of dirt tracks.
|Greater Short-toed Lark (John Hawkins)|
|Skylark (John Hawkins)|
|Woodlark (John Hawkins)|
Even for those with no interest or knowledge of birds, the word association between lark and song is familiar, as is the concept of this song heralding dawn "getting up with the lark" . It is no wonder that both poets and composers have sought to express through their respective media how this song, which is the evolved tool of these distinctly uncolourfully-plumaged birds for attracting a mate and defending resources, reaches deep inside our own emotions. I suspect the reason is almost primeval, in the same way that we can sit and stare into an open fire, as our ancestors would have done, so generations ago when all of us lived on the land, the song of larks would have been a vivid companion to our being.