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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 16

From Issue No 16

Gem amongst rocks

 

Sclater’s Lark – Spizocorys sclateri (Afrikaans: Namakwa-lewerik)

 

This is to me a very special little bird that lives in very arid regions of the North West Cape and Namibia. It has adapted to its harsh environment in ways that one can only admire, from using the finest camouflage skills, to finding ways to regulate heat for itself, the egg and the chick.

My observations were made at 37 nests over a period of five years in the Brandvlei district of Bushmanland, Northwestern Cape, and at seven nests on the edge of Verneukpan, also in Bushmanland.

Sclater’s Lark is about 14 cm long, its upper parts dark brown with darker streaks, throat white, lower parts buff with darker streaks. It appears to be fairly squat of build, with a short tail.

It lives on open, stony plains with hardly any vegetation. The specific terrain was so inhospitable that nobody thought of looking for a bird’s nest there. It was only in November 1988 that I, accompanied by Peter Steyn, noticed a neatly constructed nest of pebbles when we were taking a short-cut back to our vehicle to escape from a thunderstorm.

The nest is a scrape, about 50 mm deep and then lined with fine grasses. What makes it special, is that the nest is encircled with pebbles to about 6 cm to 10 cm around the rim of the nest. The pebbles that form this apron are all carried there by the birds, sometimes from quite far away. At one nest we counted 175 pebbles, some of them as big as 1,5 cm across.

Sclater’s Lark lays only one egg (contrary to what the literature said up to the publication of the new Robert’s tome last year). The egg is large for the bird’s size, and after 21 days incubation a well-developed chick, 21 mm by 15 mm (very big for such a small bird), with tufts of fluffy feathers already in place, hatches. It is then already well-protected from heat.

The chick is covered in small fluffy patches, which look exactly like the seeds blown about in the area and camouflages the chick when exposed in the nest. To counter the harsh surroundings, the chick develops very quickly, and after only ten days is able to leave the nest.

The male and female take turns to shade the chick by standing over it, with wings flapping. The adult then puts up its crest (which, according to most published sources, it doesn’t have).

At night they make a scrape 10 cm wide to about 3 cm deep to sleep in on the open plains where they spend most of their time.

These birds must have water available not more than 5 km away, so man has made it possible for them to colonize areas like Bushmanland where sheep farming has made water available at windmills and pumps. Sheep drinking-troughs are always kept full so the birds are assured of a permanent water supply. That may explain why they do not have to rely on rain for breeding to take place.

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The books say Sclater's Lark doesn't have a crest, but here it is, raised to aid cooling in the extreme heat

The books say the Sclater's Lark doesn't have a crest, but here it is, raised to aid cooling in the extreme heat

The bird is dependent on water and the water-points provided by sheep farmers have enabled it to live in otherwise waterless areas

The carrefully constructed and well-camouflaged nest of the Sclater's Lark. The downy tuffts on the young chick resembles wind-blown seeds

The carrefully constructed and well-camouflaged nest of the Sclater's Lark. The downy tuffts on the young chick resembles wind-blown seeds

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