The Tet Zoo tour of Libya (part II): of larks and buntings

After a little delay, I'd like to continue regaling you with, if I may, my assorted musings on my excursion to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. In other words, I want to talk more about Libya...

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In the previous article I spoke about some of the animals I saw both in the more urban areas, and out in the countryside. If you go to north Africa (and if you're interested in ornithology), you hope to see larks. Larks (alaudids) do well in the deserts and semi-deserts of the region, and there are lots of species to see, some of which are very, very neat. If you think not, you're dead inside. Greater hoopoe lark Alaemon alaudipes, Dupont's lark Chersophilus duponti, Black-crowned finch lark Eremopterix nigriceps, Thick-billed lark Rhamphocoris clotbey... these birds are all amazing. Did I see any of them? In Morocco last year, I was lucky enough to see hoopoe larks on several occasions; also Desert lark Ammomanes deserti and Crested larks Galerida cristata. This time round, things weren't so lark-heavy; all I saw were Crested larks, though they were seen frequently at many sites, with my first sighting being near the Wadi Ghan dam (south of Tripoli).

Crested larks inspire strong feelings about the status of those entities termed subspecies

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Compared to the Moroccan birds, the Libyan ones were paler, so it's likely that they represented a different subspecies [the bird shown here is from Haryana, India, and thus very different from Libyan crested larks. Photo by J. M. Garg, from wikipedia]. An insane 60 crested lark subspecies have been named of which 34-37 are accepted as distinguishable; this is perhaps not surprising for a bird that ranges from Somalia to Senegal, and from Portugal to Denmark and then east to Korea. The features that vary include body size, bill length, the amount of streaking on the breast, and how brown or grey the animals are. Everyone seems to agree that a thorough revision of these innumerable forms is needed. They vary so much you might wonder whether they all represent the same species. At least there are indications from genetics that at least some of the subspecies are more closely related to one another than to other Galerida larks (like the Thekla lark G. theklae), even though some of those subspecies morphologically resemble Thekla larks more than other Crested larks (Guillaumet et al. 2005).

You'll recall here the controversy about the monophyly of species and the status of subspecies: some people might like it if subspecies were ignored and things were kept as simple as possible, but the fact is that many 'subspecies' are as distinct as are many traditionally recognised 'species', and/or represent deep divergences within the taxon in question and really do represent distinct and morphologically diagnostic lineages (some of those Crested lark subspecies, for example, diverged from one other more than a million years ago, apparently). If you adopt a 'diagnostic species concept', the horrible conclusion is that there might be twice as many extant bird species as is generally thought.

On the subject of passerines, Barn swallows Hirundo rustica were also present at the dam: what were they doing in Libya during October? I thought they would have been well south of the region by this time, but there they were.

Thoughts on the House bunting complex

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At Gharyan in the Nafusa Mountains we visited another old hilltop settlement. Finally, some good views of House buntings... the distinct reddish-bodied, bluish-headed north African birds conventionally regarded as the Emberiza striolata subspecies E. s. sahari. Again we come back to the subspecies vs species issue, as this taxon is so distinct relative to the nominate subspecies and some highly similar forms (these inhabit the Middle East and also occurs eastwards across Asia) that the two should very probably be regarded as distinct species (a view that differs substantially from that put forward in Cramp and Perrins's Birds of the Western Palearctic!). 'E. s. sahari' occurs in north-western Africa (from western Libya to Morocco) and is absent everywhere further east. The idea that sahari-type buntings and striolata-like buntings should be regarded as separate species was promoted by (among others) Mullarney et al. (1999) and has since been adopted more widely (Collinson 2006, Kirwan & Shirihai 2007) [one of my terrible photos is shown here; the better one below is by Neill Hunt and is from here on John Dempsey's excellent BirdBlog].

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I think it's likely to be correct: the two are easily more different than are other 'established' species, like the annoyingly similar Ortolan E. hortulana, Cretzschmar's bunting E. caesia and Grey-headed bunting E. buchanani, and Kirwan & Shirihai (2007) made a very strong case for the distinction of the two. With the House bunting now regarded as a distinct species, striolata-like buntings are now known as Striolated buntings. Confusing matters somewhat is a Striolated bunting population from Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and the adjacent countries (E. s. saturiator*) that has House bunting-like features and has been regarded in the past as an intermediate between striolata and sahari. Kirwan & Shirihai (2007) argued, however, that it's evidently a form of Striolated bunting, and that its House bunting-like features evidence recent hybridisation. Testing and more work is required!

* E. s. jebbelmarae looks likely to be synonymous with, or very close to, this form.

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I also got my closest view yet of a Black wheatear Oenanthe leucura (you'll recall from the previous article that members of this species were seen on numerous occasions during the trip)... sadly, it was dead, and not exactly in a state amenable to collection (read: maggots).

Finally (for animals seen in the field), in the Jabal Nafusah region near Nalut (the same site where I had my second look at the mysterious small mammals identified as rock hyraxes [with a question mark]) I accidentally flushed a small group of Alectoris partridges. So far as I could tell they didn't have any bold black or white markings on the face, and for this reason I concluded at the time that they were Barbary partridges A. barbara (a species I've previously seen in Morocco). Range maps confirm this, as the Barbary is apparently the only partridge that occurs in Libya. I also found a snake skin: it was too fragmentary to allow an identification, even to 'family' level.

Libya, land of garbage and refuse

I have one final observation on the wild spaces of Libya: like so many places in the developing world, the country is swamped with garbage. You can be on some remote hillside with a spectacular view and an archaeological ruin, and yet surrounding you on all sides are the gutted shells of old cars and vast seas of plastic shit. Near the towns, the roadsides are used as if they were strip-shaped landfill sites; the quantity of rubbish was just staggering. Without doubt, the country has a serious problem - my photos here (taken at various places) should give you some idea of how bad things are.

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Fortunately, this isn't the case absolutely everywhere, and we were told that efforts to employ the unemployed and get them to help tidy the country up are underway. But it's difficult to see if this is even possible and I am not optimistic. Remember that litter is not purely cosmetic: it's a true pollutant that poisons the land, denudes an area of living things, and has knock-on effects throughout food-chains and ecosystems.

More Libyan musings yet to come: particularly on Tripoli Zoo! And all will become clear on the mural shown at the very top of the article. For previous articles on north African wildlife see...

And for articles on plastic pollution and the smothering of the planet in human refuse see...

Refs - -

Collinson, M. 2006. Splitting headaches? Recent taxonomic changes affecting the British and Western Palearctic lists. British Birds 99, 306-323.

Guillaumet, A., Crochet, P.-A. Godelle, B. 2005. Phenotypic variation in Galerida larks in Morocco: the role of history and natural selection. Molecular Ecology 14, 3809-3821.

Kirwan, G. M. & Shirihai, H. 2007. Species limits in the House Bunting complex. Dutch Birding 29, 1-19.

Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D. & Grant, P. J. 1999. Bird Guide. HarperCollins, London.

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Barn swallows Hirundo rustica were also present at the dam: what were they doing in Libya during October? I thought they would have been well south of the region by this time, but there they were.

I don't find that so surprising. The barn swallow is actually a relatively hardy species. In the northern parts of the Western Palearctic, it's the first hirundinid species to return in the spring and the last to leave in the autumn; weather permitting, many barn swallows will stay in north-central Europe (let alone in North Africa) well into October.

Speaking of birds popping up in odd places, you don't mind if I hijack your comments section do you Darren? I saw a little egret (Egretta garzetta) in Hertfordshire, today, in November. Surely it's too late in the year for any migrant egrets to be hanging around? Should I suspect human activity, i.e. an escape?

A valid hijack Mo, I forgive you. I saw a Little egret here in Southampton about two weeks ago, and overall it seems pretty normal for them to still be here this late in the year (see the dates here, for example): in fact, it seems that lots of them are over-wintering in the country. The BTO was recording 500 over-wintering birds as far back as 1998, so god only knows how many do it now. The literature says that they are predominantly estuarine during the winter. Does anyone know any more? As is increasingly well known, large numbers of 'classic' migrants are over-wintering in Europe these days. There was some discussion of that subject back here in connection with White storks.

Little Egret is a resident in the south of England at least now - they are however subject to losses in prolonged cold weather (they were probably a resident here before the Little Ice Age wiped them out). Any salt marsh on the south coast will have them - they also nest in Ireland. The last couple of years we have also has Cattle Egret nesting in Cornwall - they seem to prefer warmer conditions than Little Egret. We also now have Spoonbill as a breeding bird and I would not be surprised if Glossy Ibis bred in the near future.

I see barn swallows almost year round in the Pacific NW USA... To me they seem almost as obnoxiously prolific as the alien eurasian starlings, pigeons, and house sparrows, and those kings of the world - corvus brachyrhynchos. I saw them on a brief trip to the rural Kansas and wouldn't be surprised to find them on the moon. Weather permitting.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

My first thought when you mentioned the swallows was late migrants, though I wonder how long until barn swallows start to find the expanding Sahara to big an obstacle and possibly start over wintering in N. Africa and the Mediterranean?

As for the little egrets, I've had them inland in urban and country parks in January here in Essex, so I think they are fully resident now, at least in the southern UK. Were they resident before the Victorians killed them all in the UK?

Any end in sight for this argument about species/subspecies? If not, are there other ideas when it comes to forming better conservation policy? So much of it seems to be done on a species level.

By Sebastian Marquez (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

Sebastian- Interesting brainteaser. I was thinking of the same subject the other day, and initially came up with the idea of focusing conservation efforts on ecosystems rather than species. That's no good for a number of reasons though. Looking at the history of conservation in the USA, it's pretty obvious any approach you take will be whittled at, watered down, or flouted by opportunists. Didn't we start out focusing on ecosystems (creating nature reserves), then move to species because that approach was failing? If focus on species is failing, what next? I don't know if there is a solution.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

The NW African rock buntings (the 'sahari group') is not only quite distinct in appearance from the NE African & Asian rock buntings ('striolata group'), they are also different in behaviour and ecology. While Birds of the Western Palearctic tends to trivialise the differences, other works (such as 'Buntings and Sparrows' a guide to the Emberzinae) make clear the differences are significant and consistent. I am fairly convinced that the sahari group (races sahari, theresae and sanghae) are a valid separate species from the nominate striolata group (races striolata, jebelmarrae & saturiator). The races of the striolata group that converge somewhat in colouration on sahari still tend to be different such as in having a more heavily streaked mantle.

Little Egrets are resident is several parts of the southern UK. The flock at the Wildfowl and Wetlands site at Penclacwdd and the agacent Burry Inlet is quite large. I have frequently seen groups of 20+, and apparently the biggest roosting flock has exceeded 200. 25 years ago a report of a little egret would have have birders coming for miles for the tick, now they are more common than herons on some local estuaries. I don't think there is any evidence that little egret were resident in the UK in the past, it seems to be a case like that of the colared dove of a recent range expansion.

On the otherhand prior to the 'little Ice Age' spoonbill & glossy ibis were UK breeding birds. Spoonbill have been breeding here again, hopefully the ibis will be tempted back. I think that there is a good chance that Cattle Egrets and Great Egrets will be resident here in the near future - they are both already annual visitors.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

Ah yes, litter. One of my favourite bugbears. It's amazing, isn't it how so much of it gets about.
I intend to winge to my local Council about this - soon

I wonder how long until barn swallows start to find the expanding Sahara to big an obstacle and possibly start over wintering in N. Africa and the Mediterranean?

If there's enough rainforest left in west Africa to create enough evaporation, the Sahara is scheduled to start shrinking soon, as it did last time (early and middle Holocene).

But probably there's not enough left.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

Mark:

I think that there is a good chance that Cattle Egrets and Great Egrets will be resident here in the near future - they are both already annual visitors.

The great egret is surely a good bet for a future British breeding species; in the eastern part of Europe, the great egret is currently expanding northwards. It has already bred as far north as Estonia.

"Thanks for that, people. No estuaries of any sort in Hertfordshire, so I suspect the egret is lost."

Hi, Mo.

Little Egrets are actually resident in the Lea Valley well up into Herts, and have bred in the famous heronry at Walthamstow Reservoirs for the last three years - there were five broods this year. The juveniles disperse locally and tend to hang around, being seen northwards anywhere from the Thames, upwards. There are usually several present at Rainham Marshes to the east, as well, year-round ...

By David Callahan (not verified) on 11 Nov 2009 #permalink

Hi,

Regarding Barn swallows being seen in N. Africa in October, that does not appear as highly unusual, at least for a person living in Southern Europe. This species winters in Southern Portugal (Iberian Peninsula) so it does not sound unlikely that it can do so in N. Africa.

By Pedro Cardia (not verified) on 13 Nov 2009 #permalink

I work in Libya and am a regular if amateur bird watcher in the country. I travel widely here. So I add some information from first hand observation.

The barn swallows left the western coast about October 25th this year. One day they were here. The next they were all gone. They left just after the first cold spell with rain. Their cousins in Benghazi (on the eastern coast)do not leave at all according to the annual winter count carried out by the government and UN.

It has been a very mild November so most Lesser Crested Terns, Grey Herons, Little Egrets etc look like they will stay this winter.

Hope this helps

By Rob Tovey (not verified) on 22 Nov 2009 #permalink

Darrin, It's so nice to know that you are a true twitcher.

The bit about larks got me to musing about the vagaries of taxonomic distribution, sitting here with the possibility of ever seeing 1 count it 1 lark species in my neighborhood or continent. Then the stream of consciousness led to Turdus: one species in the U.S/Canada, yet many in Europe, and many just south of me. Then again, you only get 1 wren. That was it; I have no explanations or even speculations.

My big rarity yesterday, by the way, was a blue-winged teal. Looked for Eurasian wigeon, but didn't find any.

By John Harshman (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

John:

sitting here with the possibility of ever seeing 1 count it 1 lark species in my neighborhood or continent.

The (introduced) population of skylark Alauda arvensis still persists on Vancouver Island, no?

one species in the U.S/Canada, yet many in Europe

If we replace 'Europe' with 'Eurasia', and stick to bird taxa at traditionally recognised genus level, we get a few more such cases, for instance these:

-The Phylloscopus warblers are very speciose in Eurasia but only one species, the arctic warbler P. borealis, has managed to get a small foothold on the North American continent, in Alaska.

-The sea eagles Haliaeetus, the true eagles Aquila*, and the harriers Circus have several representatives in the Old World but only one each in the Nearctic (although in the case of Circus there are other species in South America). The eagle/horned owls Bubo used to be another such case until the snowy owl was found to nest inside Bubo.

* I've always found it interesting that there are a whole bunch of differently sized Aquila/Hieraaetus eagles across most of Eurasia, but only one species, the golden eagle, lives in North America. Yet at the same time, there have been a fairly extensive radiation of Buteo buzzards (or 'hawks', in American vernacular) in the New World, as if these had evolved to fill this vacant 'small eagle' niche in the Nearctic. Ecologically, it would seem (to me anyway) that the red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis is a counterpart to, say, the booted eagle Aquila pennata rather than to the more closely related Eurasian common buzzard Buteo buteo.

Darren,

The (introduced) population of skylark Alauda arvensis still persists on Vancouver Island, no?

I hadn't known about it. You are apparently a bigger twitcher than I am. But I'll be sure to look for it if I ever get there. I was indeed careful to find the Eurasian tree sparrow population when I was in St. Louis -- easy feeder bird at some locations.

Explanations for this phenomenon, it seems to me, fall into three main categories: 1) ecological; 2) dispersal & time; 3) stochastic.

Ecological/evolutionary reasons would be such things as Turdus having some character that makes it less competitive, on average, in the North American environment, or perhaps an absence of niches not already filled by incumbents, e.g. that Catharus was already doing most of the thrushy jobs when Turdus showed up. A dispersalist explanation would perhaps be a claim that Troglodytes is a recent immigrant to Eurasia, and hasn't had time to diversify. And a stochastic explanation is just that: some times you get lots of speciation, sometimes not so much; no special reason.

Or you might get a combination of two or more of these.

I haven't searched the literature to find if anyone has actually suggested, much less tested, any of these, but I don't offhand know of anything.

By John Harshman (not verified) on 24 Nov 2009 #permalink