Whilst doing some fieldwork near Dikgale east of Polokwane in early January 2018, I heard the peculiar but unmistakable call of Spike-heeled Lark. I was most surprised as this was way outside its known range in the Limpopo Province. I located a pair but while photographing them I heard some more individuals calling on the other side of a deep gully. Unfortunately, I couldn't reach these birds and I cannot say for certain if they were related to the pair I was looking at, or if they were members of a separate group.
Spike-heeled Larks are highly localized but fairly common in high-lying, open grassy areas on the Polokwane Plateau. The population on the Polokwane Plateau is currently considered to represent the subspecies Chersomanes albofasciata alti-cola. However, its paler and less rufous appearance led to its recognition as a separate subspecies Chersomanes albofasciata subpallida Roberts (1932), for many years. This subspecies is essentially restricted to the bushveld and lowveld regions of the Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces, but the population on the Polokwane Plateau is isolated from other populations of the species by about 150 km of unsuitable Spike-heeled Lark habitat.
The current stronghold of Spike-heeled Larks on the Polokwane Plateau is the Chebeng grasslands west of Polokwane, but a few individuals eke out a living in an open field on the outskirts of Polokwane City. A small population used to occur in the Polokwane Nature Reserve but they have not been recorded here since 2006. The discovery of this seemingly isolated population 40 km north-east of its nearest known conspecifics is, therefore, of significant interest as it opens up the possibility that there may be more 'undiscovered' groups on the Polokwane Plateau and its small, declining known range on the Polokwane Plateau may be larger than previously thought.
Spike-heeled Lark seem to have a knack of hiding in plain sight as the recent rediscovery of another isolated population after a 50-year absence at Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo bears witness to (Louette and Hasson 2017). There are patches of suitable habitat between Dikgale and Polokwane where groups may occur, so let's see if we can find the 'missing links'.
References: Louette M and Hasson M 2017. Spike-heeled Lark Chersomanes albofasciata rediscovered in Katanga, DR Congo. Bulletin of the African Bird Club 24(1): 80-84.