We’re doing a daily bird-watching hour as part of our family coronavirus WhatsApp group. Obviously there’s quite a big risk of repetition of sightings of the wagtail that still can’t believe there are windows in the old barn where her/his ancestors nested, or the Groundhog Day magpie who learns anew each morning that it can’t hang onto the fat-ball feeder long enough to get a bite in. So I was dead pleased yesterday to see a lark rising vertically up into the blue sky from the moorlands while out on a walk up Tor y Foel – the hill opposite our house (social distancing of at least 200m observed at all times from the four other people also out for a bit of exercise).
I say with confidence that it was skylark having returned to consult the markontour bird-spotting library. There was some doubt in my mind at the time, because the one thing I thought I knew about larks is that they can hold a tune. This one, however, seemed to be shouting rather than singing.
The tome of choice in such matters is my Mum’s much consulted 1955 edition of the Observer Book of British Birds, but it didn’t help much on this occasion, stating: “The skylark is a very popular bird owing to its beautiful and joyful song as it hovers high in the blue [thus far a big tick]..it’s beautiful, exuberant song is too well known for further description.”
I can’t imagine that the average child today would instantly recognise a skylark’s song. Reading this passage just after having read an article on how habitat destruction is likely to have contributed to the spread of deadly pathogens, it was a poignant reminder of how much human pollution has changed the natural world. I haven’t been able to find a figure for how much the lark population has declined since my Mum was a teenage bird-watcher, but the RSPB advise that their numbers have fallen 75% since I was born in 1971.
Sydney Rogerson and Charles Tunnicliffe’s gorgeously illustrated ‘Our Bird Book’, first published in 1947 and purchased by markontour from the wonderful Brecon Books, seemed equally out-dated at first: “Two small birds that you are almost sure to see every time you take a walk through country fields are the lark and the tit lark [aka meadow pipit]”. But a few paragraphs on and the bird I spotted was starting to emerge:
“To say that he [sic] sings as he flies is not the whole story. What he does is to rise from the ground and climb steeply up into the sky, beating his way heavenwards with quivering wings.. The curious thing about his song is that it is beautiful when heard at a distance, but rather loud and shrieky when you hear it close to you.”
A shouty bird that flies vertically upwards is exactly what I saw. But what was it shrieking about? In the more contemporary ‘Nature of the Brecon Beacons’, local mountain guide, Kevin Walker, provides the answer – skylarks make their nests on the ground, usually around April. It has been an unusually hot winter, so it seems reasonable to assume that I wandered past a skylark’s nest, causing it to helicopter up into the sky and chirrup away in protest – a full blast of larkish “get orf my land”.
Kevin Walker also warns that “[t]hese streaky brown songbirds are easily mistake for meadowpipits”, but you can tell them apart as the skylarks are distinguished by a stiff-winged flight (tick), whereas meadowpipits are a bit flappy. Skylarks also display a raised crest when alarmed (another tick).
So by process of researched deduction, I am now convinced I saw a skylark. Sadly there was only one, so I can’t claim I witnessed what Matt Sewell calls an “exultation of larks” (see image above). But one skylark counts for at least a hundred points in the family bird-spotting group.
There’s only one more thing to be said, which is that if you aren’t fortunate enough to be easily able to encounter some real-life lark song, especially in these isolation times, then I highly recommend enjoying Nigel Kennedy’s rendition of ‘A Lark Ascending‘ from the comfort or your armchair, which is exactly what I am about to do now.
Image: An Exultation of Larks, from Matt Sewell’s ‘A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Collective Nouns’