Dupont's Larks are easy!

Dupont's Lark: Morocco. (Photo: Michel Watelet)

There are lots of reasons why Dupont's Lark is considered one of the hardest species to see in the Western Palearctic. In the words of a contributor to one of the birders logs in a Moroccan café, they 'run faster than Linford Christie and hide better than Lord Lucan'. This means that unless they announce their presence by singing they can be almost impossible to find. And since they sing mostly at night, in open plains that are rarely visited by anyone other than shepherds, the chances of coming across them by chance are also pretty slim. Indeed they are so hard to find that they were once thought to be extinct in Spain when, in truth, there were about 13,000 males singing away unnoticed every night during the spring!

The best-known place to see them in Morocco is on the plains south of Zeida, between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountains - but until this year I'd always failed to see this species there despite at least 20 hours (!!) of searching. That's because all my visits had been in the winter months when either the population disappears to somewhere further south or the birds are just 'impossible' to find because at that time of year they are silent. Rule number one, then, for finding Dupont's Larks is to go in spring when they are singing. In that way, providing you're prepared to listen during the hours of darkness, you should at least get to work out exactly where they are. Seeing them can still be a different matter though.

It's worth trying to find them at dusk - you might save yourself the trouble of getting up at some unearthly hour of the morning or at least you might locate the best place to aim for at dawn. If you stand on the plain and listen as night falls you'll probably have to wait until the Short-toed Larks are going quiet before you hear the loud clear whistling of a Dupont's. By this time, however, the light will probably be rubbish so you might not actually see one before it goes dark.

This was exactly what I found this year when I visited Zeida on 16th April. The 'classic site' is reached from the main road about 3km south of Zeida. Within 100 metres of the kilometre post saying 'Er Rachidia 167' and 'Meknes 162' there are tracks leading off in both directions perpendicular to the road (as drawn on the map in Finding Birds in Northern Morocco, page 17) . I explored both these tracks but the only singing birds I found were two birds about 600 metres along the track to the east of the road. This wasn't really what I wanted because I was aiming to get some sound recordings and I figured this would be too close to the traffic on the main road. However, I met a young Belgian who was making a concerted effort to nail these birds by camping overnight on the plain! He said he'd found an area much further along that track (beyond the telegraph lines, for those of you who know the place) where he'd heard two singing males before nightfall.

So, by 5.30 the following morning I was out on the plain, beyond the pylons, where I quickly found the young Belgian, his tent, and a singing Dupont's Lark. We stared into the dim light but couldn't locate where the sound was coming from. The bursts of song were only intermittent and by 6.15 they'd stopped altogether - and we still hadn't seen the bird. Now we were reduced to 'cold searching' - the same heart-breaking process that I'd tried on many previous unsuccessful occasions. I gave up and concentrated instead on getting recordings of Desert Wheatear, Red-rumped Wheatear, Short-toed Lark and Tawny Pipit. When I set off back at about 8.00, I had to pass the spot where I'd heard two Dupont's the night before, so I stopped for a last look. As soon as I opened the car door I heard a burst of Dupont's song nearby. I leaned on the roof of the car and the first bird I saw was a Dupont's Lark singing from the top of a little bush, so close that I could see its downcurved bill with my naked eye. Despite a buffeting wind, I filmed the bird and got some sound recordings (between passing cars). Dupont's Larks are meant to be almost impossible to see but here was one within feet of a track, singing away from the top of a bush in broad daylight (and there was another singing bird on the opposite side of the track too). Here was an unmissable Dupont's Lark, being missed by a desperate young birder who was looking in the wrong place! I went back to look for him but he'd wandered out of sight. I clocked how far it was from the singing bird to the road - 600 metres - and noted some trackside stones (2 piles of 3 stones each) that might have been left by other birders to indicate spots from which this bird could be seen. I passed on this detail to other birders I met, including the parents of the young Belgian. I don't know whether he got to see the bird but I've since heard from 2 other 'crews' that it was still there, easily located and giving amazing views, some days later.

So, Dupont's Lark CAN be easy. If the same territory is occupied in future years, especially if the bird will sing in daylight, it should be possible to locate it easily, 600 metres down the track leading east towards the pylons. All the 3 singing birds I heard seemed to have their territories around slightly raised areas of plain where the scrubby bushes are a little taller. If you hear a singing bird, scan carefully through these slightly taller bits of bush and you might spot one on top of a clump. Good luck.

Written by: Dave Gosney