A Bird From Afar: (Greater) Short-toed Lark.

3 01 2019

Short-toed Lark – Luke Tiller

This article was originally published in the November 2018 Pasadena Audubon Society Wrentit Magazine. Each month the magazine features a bird species local to Los Angeles County and “A bird from afar”, a species from the world beyond. You can read copies of the Pasadena Audubon Society Wrentit online (here).

A Bird From Afar: (Greater) Short-toed Lark.

As a professional tour guide I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to lots of weird and wonderful places and have seen a multitude of incredible birds, which makes picking a favorite from among them to illustrate “A Bird From Afar” particularly challenging.

This September I was excited to be invited, as part of a small group of raptor experts, to be part of the Batumi Raptor Festival in Georgia. When you mention that you are traveling to Georgia, most American minds tend to immediately envisage Atlanta rather than the shoreline of the Black Sea, which is where I was heading.


Short-toed Lark – Luke Tiller

As an introduction, Georgia is a small country at the junction of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Georgians are renowned for their fantastic food (stews, tandoor oven cooked meat, cheese, delicious bread and amazing cheese stuffed bread!) as well as their wonderful hospitality. This hospitality seemed to mainly involve us regularly being offered more wine and chacha (the local firewater) than would fell a bear, and that was just during lunchtime.

Batumi is a well-known hotspot for bird migration, with the adjacent Black Sea creating a formidable barrier for migrant birds of all kinds (you could fit all the Great Lakes into it two times over). The hawkwatch is one of maybe only five counts in the world where one might hope to encounter over a million hawks over the season, and as a raptor fan it’s a place that I have dreamed of visiting for many years.

There were many beautiful birds I could pick to highlight this wonderful trip, from decadently plumaged Golden Orioles and European Bee-eaters, to impressive and beautiful raptors like the Booted Eagle. The bird I plumped for, however, might be one of the least glamorous of all the birds we saw: a “little brown job” called the (Greater) Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla. These birds breed from North Africa through to Mongolia and winter in the Middle East south to Chad and Sudan. The species is gregarious in nature, usually in small flocks, though flocks may contain many thousands of individuals as they gather to migrate to wintering grounds.


Short-toed Lark – Luke Tiller

One morning, as we sat at the raptor watch site above the Village of Sakhalvasho, a single Short-toed Lark came winging in from the Black Sea and dropped in exhausted among the gathered hawkwatchers. It sat quietly for a while, either too tired to move, terrified by the hordes of gathered humans or perhaps just impressed to be greeted on its arrival in Georgia by Bill Clark and Klaus Malling Olsen.

After a moment or two of assessing the situation it seemed to cotton on that these lumbering bipedal creatures wished it no harm and was soon wandering the lawn pecking at the ground in search of some tasty seed or insect morsel. After half an hour of feeding, while becoming perhaps the most photographed Greater Short-toed Lark in history, it took off again into the skies of Georgia looking no doubt for a few friends and a safe place to spend the next day or two planning its next migratory adventure.

It was amazing to have such a close encounter with this individual bird and I felt honored to have been able to spend a little time in its company. Touched by this one little bird, it was hard not to reflect on where it would end up next and how one might help contribute to keeping our shared planet one that will continue to sustain that bird and its brethren in forthcoming years.