Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Unidentified lark spotted in Ethiopia -

Significant Ethiopian discovery - Heteromirafra larks by David Hoddinott
September 2011. David Hoddinott, while leading a birding tour to Ethiopia, had what may prove to be a very significant sighting.

David writes "I travelled to north-eastern Ethiopia with a group on a reconnaissance birding tour, where we visited the remote area of Jijiga, little visited by foreigners, let alone other birders. On seeing the magnificent grasslands to the east of the town we decided to bird an area of suitable habitat to look for Heteromirafra larks. Three known species exist in this aberrant genus of large-headed, small-bodied and short-tailed grassland larks:

1 - Rudd's lark
The highly localized and threatened Rudd's Lark, endemic to South Africa and restricted to several diminishing patches of pristine upland grasslands.

2 - Sidamo lark

The Sidamo Lark, (also known as Liben Lark), restricted to the Liben Plains of southern Ethiopia, critically endangered and recent BirdLife International reports predict it will be mainland Africa's first bird extinction; More about the Sidamo lark.

3. Archer's Lark - Not seen since 1922

Archer's lark is known from just 2 sites in Somalia and not seen since it was collected in 1922! No living birders or ornithologists have seen this bird!

David continues: "After just ten minutes of walking we flushed a Heteromirafra lark and I managed to get decent photographs of this bird. This area appeared similar to the Liben Plains but these grasslands lie 590km northeast of the Liben Plains - some distance indeed. We were also approximately 90km from the type-locality of Archer's Lark across the border in Somalia."

Sidamo or Archer's lark?
If it turns out that this species is Sidamo Lark then this will be fantastic for the conservation of a critically endangered species, and if it's Archer's Lark - well then, even better, and another bird has been "rediscovered" for science. An alternative hypothesis is that Sidamo and Archer's Larks are actually the same species and that several isolated populations exist.

BirdLife International research trip
Whatever the final result will be, this was almost certainly a significant discovery and of major conservation concern. Rockjumper Tours have been in touch with BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds over this sighting. As a result, a team of researchers made a trip to the site in May 2011 and obtained DNA samples so that these can be compared with the specimens of Archer's and Sidamo Larks. Their research will hopefully give us a better understanding of north-east Africa's Heteromirafra larks, their taxonomy, population size, distribution and conservation requirements.

David Hoddinott was leading a birding tour for Rockjumper Birding Adventures.


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