07/04/2008
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British Birds: Black Lark: New to Britain

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ABSTRACT There can be few birds on the British List with such a chequered history as Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis. It was first admitted to the British List when a male was reportedly shot at Pevensey Levels, Sussex, on 29th January 1907, but this and several subsequent records were removed following a review which concluded that they formed part of the 'Hastings Rarities'. In this account, two recent occurrences of Black Lark, the first acceptable records for Britain, are documented. The first of these was at Spurn, East Yorkshire, on 27th April 1984, and it was only after a remarkable series of coincidences that this bird was finally accepted as a 'first' for Britain. The second individual, at South Stack, Anglesey, from 1st to 8th June 2003, became one of the most celebrated rarities ever to appear in Britain.

The Spurn bird

Following three days of light easterly winds with clear conditions at Spurn, East Yorkshire, the afternoon of 26th April 1984 brought a freshening northeasterly wind with associated low cloud and sea fret. On 27th April, a cold, light northeasterly breeze with thick sea fog persisted for most of the day, until the sun finally broke through at 19.00 hrs, leaving clear conditions for the remainder of the evening. A thin scattering of grounded migrants had been seen during the week, including small numbers of Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe, a few thrushes Turdus, one or two Black Redstarts Phoenicurus ochruros and a Whinchat Saxicola rubetra.


Figure 1 Field sketch and notes of Britain's first Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis, at Spurn, East Yorkshire, on 27th April 1984, (drawing: the late Nick Bell).

At 08.45 hrs on 27th April, Nick Bell (NAB) found an unusual passerine feeding on the short turf of the Parade Ground at the Point which he was unable to identify. He returned with B. R. Spence (BRS) and G. Thomas, who were equally puzzled by its identity. A single-panel mist-net was erected in order to attempt to catch and establish the bird's identity but, unfortunately, this proved unsuccessful. After flying over the net on the first attempt, the bird returned and, after a short wait, it was once again ushered towards the net. This time it flew above the net and kept going, flying over the nearby Heligoland trap, out across the Humber estuary and on towards Lincolnshire. It was never seen again.

The remarkable plumage and confiding nature of the bird led the observers to believe that it must be an escaped cagebird, albeit an unusual one. Although various books on cagebirds were consulted at the time, the observers were unable to put a name to the bird. The general size and gait reminded NAB of a cowbird Molothrus, although clearly not one with which he was familiar. Nonetheless, after considering the options available, the observers decided that it must be an escape from captivity, perhaps a species of cowbird from Central or South America, or one of the African weavers (Ploceidae).

The bird was described briefly in a short note in the Spurn Bird Observatory (SBO) log, but this made no mention of the only other birder to see the bird, Alex Cruickshanks (AC), who had watched the attempts to trap it from afar. To his credit, AC did suggest that the bird could be a Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis, a suggestion that did not find favour with the more experienced NAB and BRS at the time. Sadly, the bird was dismissed and quickly forgotten, with the details hidden away in the depths of the SBO log.

In the early 1990s, NAB saw the plate of Black Lark in Volume 5 of BWP, and this revived old memories of the mystery bird at Spurn. Unfortunately, he was unable to find his old notebook which contained his notes of the bird, and it was not until 1996 that this was discovered in the attic of his mother's house in Hull, East Yorkshire. The notebook included a description and sketch of the bird (fig. 1). At about the same time, NAB also became aware of a photograph of a Black Lark that had occurred recently in Sweden, and it was at this point that NAB and BRS realised that they had probably made an error. Regrettably, BRS had, by this time, discarded his old notebook with details of the bird. With only one source of evidence, the record was thought unlikely to find favour with BBRC, so, despite an initial rush of renewed enthusiasm, interest in the sighting was once again destined to languish.

Nothing further happened with the record until early in 2000. At that time, the old SBO logs were retained by John Cudworth, chairman of SBO, but following his retirement in 1999, they were transferred back to Spurn. Intrigued by NAB's tale, Dave Boyle, then SBO warden, looked back through the old logs and rediscovered the account of the mysterious 'escaped' passerine (fig. 2). He was surprised to discover that the nightly log for 27th April 1984 had been written by NAB himself, an action that he had long since forgotten about! With two primary sources of information now available, and with further encouragement from Spurn regulars, NAB once again retrieved his old notebook and this, coupled with the account in the SBO log, formed the basis of a formal submission to BBRC in spring 2000.


Figure 2 Pages from the logbook at Spurn Bird Observatory, East Yorkshire, for 27th April 1984. The account, by the late Nick Bell, describes a mystery bird seen at the Parade Ground, and unpromisingly labelled as an 'Escape'. As described in the text, this was eventually accepted as Britain's first Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis. Larger version (248Kb).

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Description

The following notes were taken, based largely on NAB's sketch and handwritten notes, as the observers watched the bird at ranges down to 15 m.

It was a large, plump passerine, a little larger than a Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris, but strikingly marked and quite purposeful in its actions. In size, it was similar to a chunky, short-tailed Starling, but with a large, finch-like head. Its actions as it walked and ran around on the short grass were also reminiscent of those of a Starling.

Throat, breast, belly and remainder of underparts were black, with a panel of greyish-white feathering along the flanks below the closed wing. Crown, nape and mantle to uppertail-coverts were pale grey, with some dark brown edgings to the mantle feathers. Wings blackish with dark brown primaries. Tail blackish, short and forked. Legs blackish with 'trouser' feathering.

One of the most distinctive features was the large, finch-like bill, which was pale ivory in colour and of similar proportions to that of Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra.

No call was heard.

In flight, NAB noted the wing action to be unusual, the ample wings being broad yet pointed, and the flight was quite clipped, reminiscent of that of Fieldfare Turdus pilaris or Western Jackdaw Corvus monedula. The bird was noted to hover before landing. BRS considered the wings to be pointed and almost lark-like.

Assessment by BBRC

During the first circulation, BBRC asked for more details, but there seemed to be little likelihood of achieving this. Serendipitously, a chance conversation between NAB and AC, who was visiting Spurn in late May 2000, led to AC submitting his own independent notes from 1984, which were added to the BBRC file. The events and circumstances of the occurrence were now corroborated by a second, independent, source, and also benefitted from some additional notes supplied by BRS. Together, these notes confirmed the distinctive appearance of the bird, as well as its approachability and the prevailing misty conditions. They also established that the confusion over the bird's identity was caused largely by broad grey fringes to the mantle and head feathering, creating an impression quite different from that expected of Black Lark.

During circulation, all likely confusion species were discussed. The four most likely species were considered to be Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, Bronzed Cowbird M. aeneus, Lark Bunting Calamospiza melanocorys and White-billed Buffalo Weaver Bubalornis albirostris. The first two have entirely dark bills, are long-tailed, and apparently never show such pale tips to the plumage. Lark Bunting also has a dark bill, but displays a white patch on the wing similar to that of Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis. White-billed Buffalo Weaver shows greater resemblance to Black Lark, with a deep-based, white bill and largely black plumage, apart from diffuse greyish-white patches on the flanks. The sketches rule out these possibilities, leaving Black Lark as the only species to match the features shown by the mystery bird.

Acknowledgments

Without the support of Nick Bell, who generously shared the details of this record with many Spurn regulars, including myself, this record is unlikely ever to have been accepted. Sadly, Nick died in 2001 and was unable to enjoy the formal acceptance of his Black Lark as the first for Britain. My thanks also go to Barry Spence and Pete Crowther for their help in pulling the details together.

Lance Degnan. 14 Fiddlers Drive, Armthorpe, Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

The South Stack bird

The days leading up to 1st June 2003 had been warm and settled across North Wales, with light east to southeasterly winds and frequent sea mist resulting in reduced visibility. Although the winds were coming from a promising direction, they had produced little of interest at my local patch, South Stack, on Holy Island, Anglesey, other than a large movement of Collared Doves Streptopelia decaocto and a single Turtle Dove S. turtur. I ventured out again on the morning of the 1st, still hopeful of finding some good migrants, but by early afternoon I had not found anything of note, so I decided to go home to watch some sport on television. I was well settled when the telephone rang. It was Dave Bateson (DB), one of the RSPB wardens at South Stack, who told me that earlier that morning a volunteer warden, Stephen Rosser, had seen an unusual bird which he could not identify. As DB had been working away from his office, he had not heard about the mystery bird until his return, and although he had had a quick look for it, he was unable to refind it. It sounded sufficiently interesting for him to ask me if I would try to relocate and identify the bird.

I arrived at South Stack at about 16.00 hrs and walked the area where the bird had been seen but, like DB, I was unable to find it. I returned to the car park and was showing a visiting birder a pair of Red-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, when I noticed a dumpy, short-tailed, black bird flying out of a grassy field bordering the reserve. It flew low across the heath and appeared to land near the cliff edge. I do not remember what I said to the visitor as I left him standing there, and quickly made my way across the heath. Initially, I did not see anything, but as I walked slowly onto the clifftop path, a male Black Lark suddenly ran out in front of me!

Scarcely believing my own eyes, I gradually got my breath back as I watched yet another amazing bird on my local patch (following the Grey Catbird of October 2001; see Brit. Birds 97: 630-632). It then flew back towards the grassy field and landed on the wall but, thankfully, dropped back down onto the path instead of into the field. It was now 16.50 hrs. With nobody around and the bird apparently settled in an area sufficiently far from the main tourist paths not to be disturbed, I decided to make a run for the RSPB office. Fortunately, DB was still there. I told him the news, picked him up off the floor, and telephoned the news out.

I returned with DB and we quickly relocated the bird, feeding happily on the path. Local birders began arriving shortly afterwards and soon a steady stream of visitors appeared and all enjoyed outstanding views until dusk. The following morning, with birders massed in the car park before dawn, the bird was quickly relocated and, thanks to excellent crowd control by Alan Davies and DB, was seen well by all. It continued to give excellent views to an estimated 4,000 admirers over the following week and was last seen on the evening of 8th June.

Ken Croft. 10 Bwlfh Alltran, Holyhead, Anglesey LL6S 2DA.


Male Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis, South Stack, Anglesey, June 2003 (photo: Nigel Blake).

Description

A large, dumpy lark with long wings that reached almost to the tail tip. Head relatively large, rounded and black, but with scattered narrow and indistinct greyish-white fringes. Mantle and scapulars showed slightly more conspicuous, but still narrow and fairly indistinct, greyish-white fringes. Rump much paler, appearing greyish-white and mottled, although this area was usually hidden by the long wings. Underparts black and unmarked. Tertials and primary tips showed narrow white tips. Primaries and secondaries distinctly browner than body contour plumage and appeared abraded. Bill conical in shape, pale ivory-white. Legs dark brownish.

Ageing

Both adult and juvenile Black Larks undergo a complete moult in the summer, between July and October, although juveniles can retain outer primaries as late as December (Svensson 1992). Following this moult, age classes become inseparable. Although the Anglesey bird showed obviously worn and faded primaries, which appeared browner than the body, these cannot be used to establish the age of this individual.

Range

The range of Black Lark is restricted to the grassy steppes of Central Asia, with most breeding in Kazakhstan, although some also breed around the northern shores of the Caspian Sea to the Lower Volga area of southeastern Russia. It breeds in areas of high salinity with wormwood Artemisia and feather-grass Stipa, between the 22°C and 25°C July isotherms (Hagemeijer & Blair 1997). After the breeding season, most remain in the breeding areas, where they form large, nomadic flocks, although females and young birds are believed to move farther than the adult males (Lindroos & Tenovuo 2002). A part of the population moves a short distance to the west or southwest in September and October, with some wintering in the Ukraine and southeastern regions of European Russia (Lindroos & Tenovuo 2002) but their appearance farther west is exceptional. Although still numerous on the steppes of central Kazakhstan, the range of Black Lark is believed to be decreasing, owing to the original grasslands being ploughed and taken into agricultural use.


Some of the massed ranks enjoying watching Britain's second Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis, South Stack, Anglesey, June 2003 (photo: Steve Young/Birdwatch).

Previous occurrences within Europe

Black Lark has been recorded in Europe on just 18 previous occasions, with six of these being more than 100 years ago. The large and increasing number of active birdwatchers in Europe in recent years has not resulted in a corresponding increase in the numbers being found, and Black Lark remains a real rarity. All European records between 1958 and 2003 are listed below.

  • 1958: A male at Athens, Greece, 20th April
  • 1961: One at Manfredonia, Puglia, Italy, 3rd May
  • 1963: A flock of eight at Lake Koronia, Greece, 20th February
  • 1964: Two at the Axios Delta, Greece, 8th February
  • 1981: A male at Zakupy, Czech Republic, 28th November
  • 1988: One at Kosienice, Poland, 17th January
  • 1989: A male at Joensuu, Finland, 24th March
  • 1989: A male at Korppoo, Finland, 8th April
  • 1993: A male at Karlstad, Värmland, Sweden, 6th-7th May
  • 1995: A female at Cape Kaliakra, Bulgaria, 25th May

Unlike the vast majority of Asian vagrants to Europe, which tend to appear in autumn, all but one of the recent Black Lark records has occurred between January and early June (fig. 3), suggesting that Black Lark is prone to westward vagrancy during the first half of the year.

Black Larks and the Hastings Rarities

During the period between 1903 and 1916, the first British records of 32 species, including several Black Larks, were recorded within a 20-mile radius of Hastings. In their analysis of these records, known as the 'Hastings Rarities', Nicholson & Ferguson-Lees (1962) summarised the available evidence and concluded that many of these claims were fraudulent. Consequently, they removed 542 specimen records from the list of accepted records, along with a further 52 sight records from the same area. These included all the records of Black Lark listed below:

  • 1907: A male shot at Pevensey Levels, Sussex,29th January. One male and two females also seen.
  • 1907: A female shot near Lydd, Kent, 31st January. One male and two females also seen.
  • 1907: A male and two females at Rye, Sussex, 16th February. One male shot.
  • 1907: A male shot near Lydd, Kent, 18th February
  • 1915: A male seen at Hollington, St Leonards, undated January
  • 1915: A female shot at Westfield, Sussex, 30th January
  • 1915: A female shot at Westfield, Sussex, 1st February

Since these were the only British records at the time, Black Lark was removed from the British List, and it was readmitted only in 2004, once the Spurn bird was accepted.

Possible causes of European vagrancy

Since Black Lark is largely resident or dispersive within Central Asia, its appearance in Europe seems unlikely to be influenced by those factors that bring overshooting migrants into Europe each spring. Koistinen (2002) compared the European records of Black Lark and White-winged Lark Melanocorypha leucoptera, a closely related and largely resident species that shares similar breeding and wintering ranges to Black Lark, to determine whether there was any correlation between their appearances. He established that there was just one occasion when the species strayed simultaneously to Europe. This occurred in May 1993, when a Black Lark in Sweden on 6th-7th May coincided with a White-winged Lark in Poland on 12th May. Examination of the temporal distribution of records of these two species in Europe (fig. 3) demonstrates that both show a tendency to appear in late winter and spring, and this is more marked in Black Lark than in White-winged Lark. Koistinen also examined the prevailing weather conditions during the periods preceding the discovery of Black Larks during 1980-95. Of these birds, the two Finnish records in 1989 followed a period of east to southeasterly winds in March and April which had originated over southeast Russia. Similarly, the Swedish bird in May 1993 turned up after a period of favourable weather. The weather conditions associated with the other records appeared unsuitable for recent vagrancy from the wintering or breeding areas.

If the appearance of Black Larks in Europe does not follow the established pattern for spring vagrancy of migrant species into Europe, what other factors might be at work? Koistinen suggested that extreme weather conditions in the normal wintering areas, in particular thick snow cover, forcing them to disperse beyond their normal range. In contrast, the flocks of females, which typically disperse farther than adult males in winter, may be better adapted to seeking out improved feeding areas, so that their tendency to vagrancy is reduced.

Editorial Comment

Colin Bradshaw, Chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee, commented: 'The journey of Black Lark onto the British List has surely been one of the most tortuous of any species. While the original descriptions of the Spurn bird were quite good, BBRC was surprised that the observers had dismissed the bird, given that male Black Lark is relatively easy to identify and that there was contemporary literature available describing the variation in plumage characters that was causing concern. The additional notes provided by a completely independent observer showed that he had identified it as Black Lark at the time, but had subsequently been dissuaded from pursuing this further following discussion with what he believed to be more knowledgeable observers. In hindsight, he was correct and it was this identification, combined with the circumstances and descriptions provided, that swayed our judgement to accept the record. Several members of BBRC and BOURC visited Kazakhstan in 2002, which allowed us to become better acquainted with the variation in spring plumage of male Black Lark, and provided first-hand evidence that the plumage described for the Spurn bird was the norm rather than an unusual variation. In a record littered with coincidences, perhaps the most remarkable of all was that BBRC finally accepted the first Black Lark for Britain just one week before the South Stack individual was found.'

Eric Meek, Chairman of the British Ornithologists' Union Records Committee, commented: 'The manner in which the record of the Spurn Black Lark came to light was most unusual and, initially, raised a few eyebrows! From the documentation we received, however, it was obvious that the observers had been totally honest about the circumstances in which this came about. Although we had good notes and sketches, there was no photographic evidence and care had to be taken to eliminate all possible confusion species, especially those that might have escaped from captivity. Increasing field experience of Black Larks among members of both BOURC and BBRC, especially in relation to the variability in the white mottling on the basically black plumage, helped to convince them of the validity of the description. Advice from our captive-bird expert, Roger Wilkinson, indicated that there was no evidence that Black Lark was known in captivity at the time of the Spurn occurrence and this remains the case today. Unanimous belief among BOURC members that the bird had been identified correctly, together with the unlikelihood of a captive origin, enabled the Spurn Black Lark to be accepted as the first record of this species for Britain.'

References

Hagemeijer, E. J. M., & Blair, M. J. (eds.) 1997. The EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds: their distribution and abundance. Poyser, London.
Koistinen, J. 2002. Vagrancy and weather. Alula 8: 28.
Lindroos,T., & Tenovuo, O. 2002. Black Lark - its identification in the field and distribution in Europe. Alula 8: 22-28.
Nicholson, E. M., & Ferguson-Lees, I. J. 1962. The Hastings Rarities. Brit. Birds 55: 299-384.
Svensson, L. 1992. Identification Guide to European Passerines. 4th edn. Stockholm.

This article first appeared in the June 2005 issue of British Birds. Each of the British Birds articles will be available to all for a week, and will then become "subscriber only".
Written by: Lance Degnan and Ken Croft

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