4 Oct 2021

Thick-billed Larks – Az Zulfi area

During the Saudi National Day weekend Phil and I went to Az Zulfi and met up with Graham Gordon, a British birder in Saudi Arabia doing environmental surveys for a possible windfarm in the area. The last time I had seen Graham was 35 years before in 1986 on Fair Isle, an island bird observatory off the northern coast of Scotland. We were hoping to see Thick-billed Lark and migrants, as the area is perfectly located and the time of year was good for passage birds. We had two days of birding to try to locate the larks and see as many migrants as possible. Although we had seen and photographed Thick-billed Lark previously in Saudi Arabia it was 7 years ago, and the photos were not of a very high standard. As a result, it was a species I was keen on seeing again. I had been informed that Thick-billed Lark had been seen by Graham a few times in the spring and he was coming back in the autumn. The Saudi National Day weekend seemed like an ideal time to try to locate the larks but unfortunately Graham’s sightings of the birds had dried up slightly and our expectations of success thus dwindled to virtually zero. On the first day we arrived at mid-day and met Graham and went out to the desert. We went to a nice-looking canyon area with a small amount of water, the only water in the area. It looked a really good area but there were few birds seen. The next morning, we went to another area with a few large acacia trees and bird life there was a little more, although like all desert areas still very low. We walked the low-lying wadi area looking for larks and were only rewarded with a few Desert Larks and three Greater Hoopoe-larks. The massive area and difficult terrain made me suggest the best bet would be to drive the area as we could cover a much larger area and if we were lucky enough to see any we could stop and walk to try to get close views. This was a wise move as we drove a short distance until we saw a few large acacias growing in a small wadi. Graham pointed out three birds sitting in the shade of the last large Acacia tree, quite some distance away, and on looking they turned out to be three Thick-billed Larks. This was a location where he had not seen the species before but the large stony desert nearby and small wadi with semi-soft sand and Acacias seemed like a good location for them. We managed to drive closer to the birds, but they did not allow close approach and soon flew to a nearby rocky area where, trying to see them well proved very difficult. We managed to get a few photographs and were very happy to have seen and photographed the birds. Driving around we located a Desert Wheatear and Two Temminck’s Larks. We then moved on to the bottom of the canyon area we had visited the day before and this area had more cover and some small fields. We flushed two Thick-billed Larks driving along a small track, both of which flew in opposite directions and continued out of sight. We stopped the car and walked around the area in the hope of relocating them. I went up a steep rocky hill and located a few Desert Larks and after a while was joined by Graham. We then flushed a nightjar from the rocks that flew away quite some distance and landed under a palm tree in a small palm grove. We got closer to the bird before it flew again, where we could confirm it was an Egyptian Nightjar. This is the latest record (24 September), apart from wintering birds, I had seen in Saudi Arabia, with the previous record being the 23 September, and was a new species for Graham. We could not locate the Thick-billed Larks and returned to the car. On walking back down the track I saw a Thick-billed Lark close to the track on the stony slope and this bird allowed us some excellent views and closer photographs before we left the bird and moved further down the valley. This second site was also a new location for Graham for Thick-billed Lark. This entire area looks good for larks but trying to locate them is a difficult, time consuming but ultimately rewarding task. Thick-billed lark is a large, nomadic lark with a unique heavy bill and is a monotypic species found in northern Africa from Mauritania and Morocco to Libya as well as in Israel (irregular breeder), Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is a vagrant in Oman and Yemen and rare in Kuwait. Wintering birds occur in central Saudi Arabia and breeding birds occur in rocky, pebble and gravel deserts of the extreme north of Saudi Arabia. It is a desert specialist with a nomadic lifestyle, and numbers in any particular region, can vary greatly from year to year as it exploits the available food sources.

Thick-billed Lark

Thick-billed Lark

Thick-billed Lark

Thick-billed Lark

Thick-billed Lark

Thick-billed Lark

Desert Wheatear

Temminck's Lark

Temminck's Lark


 

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