The Arabian Lark, Desert Enigma

December 2020 broke the spell. After three years of trying, I finally tracked down the Arabian Lark Eremalauda eremodites, and not once but thrice in the matter of a few weeks. Nemesis no more! After the first encounter, my wife asked me why I’d been so obsessed with finding them. To be honest, it wasn’t just the challenge. It’s also how intriguing this understudied species actually is—the more I learn about them the more questions I have. Case in point—they’re known to be nomadic and will show up in areas that have recently received rain but then may be absent from those areas in subsequent years. They were discovered at Rawdat Nourah (روضة نورة), north of Riyadh in winter 2015, after the region got substantial rainfall in November 2014, which I subsequently learned about by searching for rain videos from Riyadh on YouTube. After learning about these sightings I then scoured Rawdat Norah twice in early April 2019, once in December 2019, and then again in February 2020—nothing. The rawdah, a shallow depression in the desert that becomes a lush meadow after rains, was actually the driest I’d seen it when I visited last February as the region had gone rainless for over six months.

An adult Arabian Lark at Rawdat Norah, Riyadh Province

Then on December 11, 2020, Adam Harris and I returned to Rawdat Norah. Fortune was in our favor this time. Thunderstorms had passed through just five days prior and all along the road as we drove in the evening before were large, shimmering puddles, indicating just how much had fallen. Sure enough at Rawdat Norah the next morning fresh growth was already in evidence and setting out into the expansive gravel-sand desert to the south of the entrance road—the same area I’d explored four times before—we soon encountered large groups of Bar-tailed Larks. Having jumped out to survey a group of near 20, I set out along the edge of a promising sandy patch with the herbaceous vegetation preferred by the Arabian Lark. And then there they were—a pair foraging less than 10 meters away. We soon found others and, considering how expansive the area is, it’s possible there were many more. In this case, it seems clear they returned on account of the rains, but what I’ve been wondering is how they knew. What signs are they registering in their environment telling them some possibly far off place had just received rain? And how far would they wander if the whole of their range went without rain?

An Arabian Lark in the desert north of Al Ula, Madinah Province

At the end of the month, I encountered Arabian Lark again with my family during our visit to Al Ula (العلا) in the northwest of the Kingdom. They were quite numerous in the desert north of Madain Saleh (مدائن صالح), and sure enough the whole area had received substantial rainfall in the weeks prior. On December 30, we made a couple of stops to explore the desert north of a road running east of route 375, the start of which is 64 kilometers north of Al Ula. Here were found two Arabians in an area likewise bursting with Bar-tailed Larks. Temminck’s Larks were also fairly abundant along this stretch of road. However, the next day, thanks to a lead from Jem Babbington, who was birding the area at the same time, my daughter and I saw a flock of around 35 birds in gently sloping desert just off route 375 a little further north of where were the day before. The thing that struck me about the Arabian Larks we encountered out near Al Ula was that, unlike the Riyadh birds, these were in more barren, less vegetated stretches of desert. My family and I actually spent a few fruitless hours exploring what to me was ideal terrain for the Arabian Lark—broad, shallow wadis in flat or gently sloping desert with low herbaceous vegetation—terrain, in my recent experience, most closely typified by Rawdat Norah. The large flock that Jem discovered were favoring a sand-gravel slope running down from a low jebel to the north that clearly had been swept by a good wash of rain and had sprigs of fresh green sprouting up in places, yet not much else besides the gnarled bases of an overgrazed shrub dotting the area. My daughter and I had spent nearly two hours focussing on an area further out into the desert that had the kind of vegetation I expected would attract the Arabian Lark and only stumbled upon the flock on our way back to the road, thinking the morning was going to be bust. Again, this enigmatic desert nomad defied my expectations and left me with more questions.


The Taxonomic Status of Arabian Lark

Dunn’s Lark (Eremalauda dunni). © Helmut Pfeifenberger

Formerly the Arabian Lark was considered conspecific with Dunn’s Lark Eremalauda dunni, which ranges across the Sahel region of the southern Sahara in North Africa as far west as the territory of Western Sahara. The latest IOC taxonomy (11.2) split these two taxa into two separate species on the basis of differences in body size, plumage, bill size, and voice as well as putative genetic differences. While it may be hard to dispute the genetic analysis, prior to the split, the claim that they were separate species gave me pause for two reasons: 1) E. dunni's occurrence across its North African range is not well understood given the dearth of studies and lack of observations, especially in restive countries like Mali, Niger, and Chad, which means we couldn’t preclude, in my opinion, the possibility of movement between Africa and Arabia; 2) E. dunni and E. eremodites are understood to be nomadic and regularly wander to areas that have experienced rainfall well outside their known range. Therefore, what’s to say that Arabian birds were not wandering into Africa in search of suitable conditions and vice versa. For this reason, and the fact that images of the two subspecies appear to contradict the above-mentioned differences, I wasn't convinced; however, even eBird taxonomy now recognizes E. eremodites, so it appears there's greater consensus now in the ornithological community of the taxonomic status of the Arabian birds. With an estimated 90% of its population occurring in Saudi, the Arabian Lark is now the Kingdom's newest near-endemic.

An Arabian Lark appearing far less streaky above and with a fainter mustachial stripe and facial markings than the others featured here (compare with the Dunn’s Lark above)

The Habitat of the Arabian Lark

On the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian Lark ranges from central, northern to northwestern Saudi Arabia but also occur more locally in Yemen, Oman, Jordan, and Kuwait. In recent years they’ve been recorded with more regularity in Israel as well. They can be found in flat or gently sloping sand-gravel deserts and tend to favor patches of herbaceous shrubs in these areas, which grow thicker around shallow wadis and depressions in such terrain. Here they’ll often be found foraging around the bases of these shrubs, using their strong beaks to break through compacted sand in search of the invertebrates that compose the bulk of their diet. The bird in the animated GIF below was feeding on ants. They’re also associated with the growth of ephemeral grasses occurring after rains, such as a record of 60 by Cliff Peterson out at Jebel Hamra near Judah back in the 1980s as well as Jem Babbington’s birds north of Al Ula.

An Arabian Lark using its strong beak to dig through the sand at the base of a woody shrub in search of ants

Therefore, successfully finding Arabian Lark in areas of their known range requires an ability to read the terrain and explore potential habitat under suitable conditions. At Rawdat Norah, while the Bar-tailed Larks were the most abundant on the least vegetated patches of gravelly desert, the Arabian Larks stayed close to the herbaceous shrubs, which grow out of more compacted sand in greater concentration along shallow washes, the warmest coloring in the larks’ plumage a good match for the rusty hue of the sand itself.

Patches of compacted sand and herbaceous vegetation in otherwise flat gravel desert at Rawdat Norah, an hour and half north of Riyadh
An Arabian Lark foraging near the woody remains of a desert shrub out north of Al Ula, Madinah Province

Identification of Arabian Lark

An Arabian Lark in the desert north of Al Ula with its distinctive large pink beak and mustachial stripe

The key features for determining if indeed you are looking at your first Arabian Lark are reddish-brown streaking on a light sandy-brown head and mantle, a large pinkish beak strongly curved along the culmen, and a variably strong mustachial stripe running down from just in front of the eye. On closer inspection, more facial features should jump out on these actually rather interesting-looking birds. A faint, broad eye ring and pale lores give the Arabian Lark a slightly pop-eyed countenance. They also have a faint supercilium that extends past the eye, which they sometimes seem to furrow under harsh light, and a diffuse stripe running just behind the eye. This eye stripe demarcates the upper edge of the ear patch, which appears a shade darker than the rest of the face and contrasts with a lighter throat, faint, partial collar, and sandy-brown nape. These bolder facial features are one of the differences between the Dunn's and Arabian Larks that support the claim that they are in fact separate species.

This Arabian Lark is displaying the critical features required for a positive ID

The tail pattern on the Arabian Lark is also fairly diagnostic, especially when distinguishing between them and the Ammomanes larks. The central tail feathers, visible from above on a closed tail, are a similar reddish-brown color to the tertials on the wings. However, in flight or when a bird is preening or stretching, as in the image below, look for overall black tail feathers with whitish-buff on the outermost edges.

An Arabian Lark stretching its wings and tail near Rawdat Norah

Overall, the wings are the brightest feature on the Arabian Lark. On closed wings, long, reddish-brown tertials nearly obscure dark-tipped cinnamon-colored primaries. The contrast between wing coloring and the coloring of the rest of the upper parts is not nearly as striking as that on a Bar-tailed or Desert Lark though.

The dark tips of the primaries just barely poke out from under long, reddish-brown tertial feathers on the Arabian Lark’s closed wings

They are indeed quite distinct in appearance from the other lark species that can be found in and adjacent to the same habitat; however, caution is advised as certain features on these species might lead one, like me a few times, to believe that they may have found an Arabian Lark when in fact it was another species. I’ll discuss these in turn below.


Vocalizations

While, unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to record an Arabian Lark in full song, below are some other vocalizations I was able to capture during my last encounter. These represent some of the first audio recordings of Arabian Lark in Saudi Arabia uploaded to Xeno-Canto.

Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti

The very pale subspecies of Desert Lark found in the Eastern Province

Desert Larks are found throughout the Kingdom in hilly or mountainous terrain; however, they can descend to nearby slopes to forage, leading to potential confusion with Arabian Lark. While searching for Arabian Lark on a gently sloping plateau some 15 kilometers east of Jebel Towki, where Desert Larks are abundant, I found a lark digging in the sand with its heavy beak. As Arabian Lark had been seen in the area in the past, I immediately thought that this might be my first. However, as I continued observing the bird I noted that its beak was yellow, not pink. Beak color is key for distinguishing between Desert and Arabian Larks. Also, the head, face, and mantle on Desert Lark, while a similar ground color to that of Arabian Lark, especially more central and eastern birds, lack the obvious streaking of the latter. The tail pattern on a Desert Lark is also quite different, lacking as it does the bold black tail feathers of Arabian Lark. Extra care should be taken with Desert Larks as well on account of plumage variations throughout their range; multiple subspecies occur in Saudi with generally paler birds occurring in the central and eastern parts of the Kingdom and darker birds occurring out west.

One of the darker, western subspecies of Desert Lark in the mountains south of Taif

Bar-tailed Lark Ammomanes cinctura

A Bar-tailed Lark at Rawdat Norah in the heat

Like the Desert Lark, the cute and diminutive Bar-tailed Lark lacks streaking on its head and mantle, has a distinctive pattern on reddish-brown tail feathers, more contrast between wing coloring and mantle coloring, and shouldn’t be easily confusable with Arabian Lark. However, they do have little pink beaks, which may appear larger than normal in hot weather when the birds sleek down their contour feathers to help them stay cool, making them appear more slender and longer-legged, as in the image to the left. Conversely, in cold weather, the birds will puff out their feathers, making their beaks appear extra dainty and cute as in the image below. Furthermore, Bar-tailed Larks most closely associate with Arabian Lark in suitable habitat for the latter.

Bar-tailed larks on a winter morning will often appear as cute, little puffballs with dainty pink beaks

Temminck’s Lark Eremophila bilopha

A juvenile Temminck’s Lark with a black tail with whitish-buff edges

While there’s no chance a mixing up an adult Temminck’s Lark with an Arabian Lark, given the former’s striking black bib, mask, and horns, juvenile Temminck’s Larks look little like their parents and can be seen in similar habitat as Arabian Lark with which they sometimes associate. On my first visit to Rawdat Norah, I spent nearly a half an hour puzzling over two juvenile Temminck’s Larks, interrogating myself at length as to why they weren’t Arabian Larks, even young ones. What first set me down the path of initially misidentifying them were the reddish-brown highlights on a sandy-brown ground color on the young birds’ heads and mantles as well as overall black tail feathers, the outermost of which were white. The beaks on these young birds, while clearly thinner and more pointed than to be expected on an Arabian Lark, were still a pinkish-yellow and I wondered if they might not be fully developed. The question was only settled when an adult Temminck’s appeared and began feeding the two birds. The Birds of the Middle East doesn’t provide an illustration of a juvenile Temminck’s. Only after checking the Collins Bird Guide and its generally excellent collection of illustrations did I confirm what was now plainly obvious.

An adult Temminck’s Lark with a juvenile at Rawdat Norah
Two juvenile Temminck’s Larks at Rawdat Norah

Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark Eremopterix nigriceps

Besides the above “desert” larks, the only other species with which one might confuse an Arabian Lark, again, to my embarrassment, like myself, is a female Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, which can sport large, grayish-pink beaks and streaking on their backs and heads. The body structure and beak shape among other things should steer you away from Arabian Lark as a possible ID however.

A female Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark (Eremopterix nigriceps). © Albin Jacob
A less well-marked Arabian Lark with the ubiquitous plastic water bottle in the desert north of Al Ula, Madinah Province

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