Sykes’s Short-toed Lark

Between January-March 2021, I had the opportunity to observe a flock of up to 10 Sykes’s Short-toed Larks (Calandrella dukhunensis) that came to roost at Mae Faek along with the pipits every evening. This migratory lark is normally a very rare winter migrant, but I’ve observed an influx of this species both in the winter of 2019/2020 and 2020/2021. In the winter of 2019/2020, a flock of at least 8 birds was observed to be staying at Mae Ai paddies in Chiang Mai, and a flock of up to 13 birds was observed at Ban Paen paddies in Lamphun.

Sykes’s Short-toed Larks coming to roost at Mae Faek. They usually circled around several times before landing.

In 2021, I first found at least 3 birds at Mae Faek when I discovered the roosting site on 25 January. On 27 January, I observed 10 birds flying altogether before dropping into the grass to roost. The birds were regularly seen throughout February, and were last seen on 21 March, when only 2 birds were observed while coming to the roost.

This individual has a prominent black patch on the neck side. The upperparts are also quite well streaked.
A similar individual but the neck patch is not well defined. Note the short thick bill with dark culmen and tip.
Some birds have plainer upperparts. This individual also has a nice rufous wash on the flanks. Note the fresh median and greater coverts with bold buffish tip creating bold double wing bars.
This individual has a rather plain face with very weak streaking on the crown, while the mantle and scapulars are heavily streaked. Note that it’s in fresh plumage which is more buffish than in worn plumage.
While this individual has a strongly marked crown and eye-stripe, but with rather plain mantle. Interestingly, it also has dark streaking on the breast.
This individual has a mix of both streaky crown, mantle and breast.
Another plain-looking bird with faint streaking on the crown, mantle and breast
This individual looks particularly interesting because of the dark crown, strong eye and moustachial stripe, and extensive white around the eye and lore.

Being able to observe these birds for nearly 2 months allowed me to get tons of photos of them. I am still puzzled by their plumage variation. Some of them looked almost as if they could be different species, but I can’t seem to see what else could they be. The plumage varied from very plain-looking to very well streaked, and from very warm rufous-buff to cold greyish-brown. However, the bill shape is quite consistent among all birds, being short and thick, so none of them looked good for Greater Short-toed Lark or Hume’s Lark.

Once arrived at the roosting site, they usually continued to feed on grass seeds, which were abundant at the time, before stopping to rest after sunset. They seemed to only feed on the very tiny seeds, similar to what Red Avadavats like to eat.
Note the horizontal posture while feeding. The body is almost always held close to the ground making it difficult to see, especially when feeding in the grass.
They also liked to spend a lot of time dust bathing.
After the daily dust bathe, they spent even more time preening and occasionally stretching. Note the white outer tail feathers that can only be seen while stretching or landing.
Note the white outer tail feathers and very long pointed wing
The birds liked to fluff up and shake their body feathers to conclude the preening ritual. Note the puffed crown which might resemble a crest.
They can be very fluffy.
And squishy!
It’s also interesting to see that the upper tail coverts are extremely long, nearly reaching the tail tip.
As the name suggests, the hind claws are rather short compared to many species of larks.
When in flight, the Sykes’s Short-toed Lark can be told from other larks by the heavily undulating flight, and the diagnostic call which is almost always given while flying. I almost always noticed them by the flight call while they were arriving at the site. The flight call can be listened here https://www.xeno-canto.org/552460

From these photos, it might seem to you that these birds were easily seen and photographed. In real life, it was a daily challenge for me to find them. Even though they can be easily noticed while in flight because of the flight call, once they drop into the grass, it can be very challenging to locate them on the ground. I usually drove around and searched for them among the grass, as they were much less wary of a car than a walking person. Most of my first attempts in trying to find them on the ground resulted in me flushing them off from right next to the wheels before I could notice them.

The plumage blends really well with dry grass. Can you spot all 5 birds in this photo?
Comparing the size and posture between a Sykes’s Short-toed Lark (left) and a Richard’s Pipit (right)
Only when alert, the upper body is pushed up to look for danger. Note that this individual has a very pale greyish-brown plumage with faint plumage streaking.
When feeling threatened, they often ran to hide among the grass and sat motionlessly until they felt safe enough to come out.
When slowly approached by car, they could be watched at a very close range. Here’s a close up of a bird that was busy feeding on grass seeds.

I have no idea about what causes the influx of this species in Thailand like what we have seen in the recent two winters. It could be the changing climate pattern which altered the migration route, the population expansion, or just simply the increase of birders around Thailand. It will be very interesting to see if we’ll continue to see the same trend happening in the upcoming winter. I would love to have them back in my local patch again when the season arrives.

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