It’s just after sunrise, somewhere in the Kalahari. Can you hear those chickens in the distance? These beautiful phrases are from a Fawn-coloured Lark. Can you see him? That orangey bird with the white belly on top of that bush there. What an incredible song! I’d guess about 10-15 notes per second; full of whistles and trills and rattles and clicks…and it sounds like many of them are borrowed from other Kalahari birds. Wow!
Probably the most important lark to get to know is the Rufous-naped Lark. They are usually the most common ones in grassland and savanna habitats and they’ve got a big distribution. Luckily their songs are easy to recognise, although each one sounds a little different. It’s basically three notes, but the second and third notes run together: tsee, tsee-oo, tsee, tsee-oo. Or, with a little imagination, ruuu, fous-naped. If you follow this sound it’s easy to spot the bird sitting on a fence or termite mound or boulder or bush, about 1 m above the ground. The males raise their red crests when they sing. And, if you watch them for a while, you’ll see that every now and then he jumps into the air and flutters his wings. Can you hear it? Keep in mind that each one sounds a little different. Here are some variations from different parts of South Africa.
But let’s talk about the best singer of all of them, and my favourite. Even its name tell you that it’s a great musician: the Melodious Lark. You’ll bump into these guys in summer when the grasslands are green and lush. If conditions are just right, they are super common; in fact, it’s like they live spaced-out colonies: you can often hear 3 or 4 males singing at the same time. Sometimes they sing while sitting, but usually you’ll see them fluttering in one spot, about 30 m above the ground. They kinda look like giant bees buzzing there. And what makes their song amazing, is that it is made up of copies of the sounds of other grassland birds. Each lark can copy many, many other species (perhaps more than 50). It is a bit tricky to recognise the ones that they are copying, because the lark only copies each species for about one second, before switching to the next. Let’s listen. I’ll play the clip – you try and hear if you can recognise any of the imitations. Then we’ll go through it bit by bit.
So, did you catch any?
Okay, let’s take it slow. In this section the lark is copying a Crowned Lapwing. Here’s the lark…and here’s a real Crowned Lapwing. Here’s another lapwing copy: this time an African Wattled Lapwing. And this is the real Wattled Lapwing. And how about lapwing number three, Blacksmith? And here’s the same call from a real Blacksmith. Here the lark is copying the beautiful kelkiewyn call of Namaqua Sandgrouse. Now he’s doing Little Swift. First the lark, then the real swift. Now it’s time for Quailfinch. Two different calls of what sounds like a Karoo Prinia; first the lark, then the prinia. And Long-tailed Widowbird. How awesome is that? But you have to be sharp: here the lark is copying the I’ll drink your beer call of the Shelley’s Francolin, but it only gives the first two notes. Check it out:
The Monotonous Lark’s name means the opposite than Melodious Lark. Basically, monotonous means only one tone – boring. That’s because these larks make the same short song over and over and over again. When conditions are perfect – when it has rained just enough, and the grass is just the right height – these larks irrupt. That means they suddenly appear in huge numbers. One night when I was camping along the Limpopo River, there was a huge thunder shower. After the storm, I could hear Monotonous Larks flying overhead in the darkness. The next morning when I woke up the veld was full of them! There was a male singing from every second bush. And they don’t stop, day or night. People usually say the song sounds like the phrase “for syrup is sweet”. But maybe you can invent a better version? In this clip you can hear several neighbours singing at the same time.
It’s not only the Melodious Lark that copies other birds. Many other larks can also do this trick, including the Sabota Lark. Sabotas are the most common larks in thornveld habitats. They walk about on the ground, but when you get too close they’ll fly up and land in the top of a thorn tree. Listen to this 10 second clip. Would you believe that this Sabota copies 11 other birds in the clip? They are Quailfinch, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Rattling Cisticola, Black Cuckooshrike, Dark-capped Bulbul, African Grey Hornbill, Chinspot Batis, Long-billed Crombec, Kurrichane Thrush, Yellow-fronted Canary and Groundscraper Thrush. Let’s listen again. Crazy!
The five Long-billed Larks – Cape, Agulhas, Karoo, Benguela and Eastern – all sound pretty much the same. A long whistle that falls, or descends, in pitch. That means it goes form high to low. This is a Karoo Long-billed Lark that I recorded in the dry and rocky Richtersveld desert. And here’s a Benguela Long-billed from Namibia. Now listen to an Eastern Long-billed Lark from a grassy mountain top in Mpumalanga. They are all pretty similar hey? Cape and Agulhas Long-billed’s add one more short whistle before the main one. Here’s a Cape Long-billed from near my house in Langebaan.
The two Clapper Larks also make a long whistle, but theirs rises, or ascends, in pitch. Meaning it goes from low to high – so the opposite of a Long-billed Lark. Here’s a Cape Clapper. And here’s a Long-billed again. Can you hear the difference? But Clapper Larks are called that because they also add loud wing-clapping to their songs. If you’re far away you’ll only hear the whistle part though. Usually they clap while fluttering steeply upwards, then whistle, and then parachute down. Flappet Larks also clap their wings together, but they don’t add the whistles, and, they clap while flying very high up. Here’s a Flappet. Scan the QR Code on page 316 to see sonograms of Clappers and Flappets.
The four “sand larks” are Karoo Lark, Barlow’s Lark, Dune Lark and Red Lark. All four of them sound pretty similar. Their songs are short phrases, that start with clicking sounds. They sing while sitting on a bush, with a horizontal back, stiff legs and their tails hanging down. But they also sing while fluttering above their territories. Here’s one or two variations of Karoo Larks from around Langebaan on the West Coast. And here’s a Red Lark from near Springbok in the Northern Cape.
I am very fond of the song of the Large-billed Lark. It sounds like when you push open a squeaky gate that needs some oil: a lot of high and sharp squeaks. This is another one that I recorded at my place, in dry strandveld vegetation. These larks, with their yellow bills, are quite common in dry habitats. Don’t be surprised if you hear squeaky gates all over the Karoo and Namaqualand!
The last one that we should talk about is the quirky little Spike-heeled Lark. These guys are less musical than the other larks. They chatter. And because they live in groups, they all chatter together. It’s actually quite a funny sound. Let’s listen.