Tuesday, October 27, 2020
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Notes from the sticks: What larks

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A NUMBER of people have remarked that the reduction in traffic noise during the lockdown has meant that they can hear birdsong more clearly. There are lots of beautiful singers but perhaps the best of the lot is the skylark (Alauda arvensis).

It’s an undistinguished-looking bird, apart from its jaunty crest which it can raise or lower, streaky brown and a little smaller than a starling. It is found in open countryside and on farmland from sea level to upland moors.

Of course it is the song for which it is known, and which moved Shelley to write his ode To a Skylark in 1820. I am really proud to say that I still know the first verse by heart from school six decades ago (I wonder if Shelley is ever read in school now? I somehow doubt it):

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from Heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

You can read the rest of the poem here

Another poet, George Meredith, wrote The Lark Ascending (see herein 1881 which in turn inspired Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1914 to compose probably his most famous work, which topped a 2011 poll of BBC listeners and is regularly voted number one in Classic FM’s annual Hall of Fame. Not a bad tally for a small brown bird. I chose this recording for the lovely country scenes.

The song has two purposes: to advertise the male’s territory and to entice a female. From a standing start, the bird rises almost vertically to a height of up to 1,000ft, by which time it is scarcely visible from the ground. It hovers for several minutes (apparently up to an hour has been recorded) then gently glides down, singing all the time. It is an amazing physical feat which I have seen compared to a man running up a steep hill while singing non-stop at the top of his voice. Females judge the males on the length of the song flight as an indicator of stamina and hence suitability as a mate.

It’s not an easy thing to film, but this one is as good as any:

I like this slow-motion film.

And here is one singing on the ground. It’s always hard to believe they are doing it to warn other chaps to keep away, not for the sheer joy of it.

Skylarks nest on the ground, and lay three or four eggs. Chicks become independent after only two weeks and parents can have up to four broods in a breeding season. Here is a sweet video from the RSPB.

However their nesting habits make them highly vulnerable and skylark populations throughout Europe are in steep decline. In Britain, numbers in its preferred habitat of farmland dropped by 75 per cent between 1972 and 1996 and it is in the red category of most threatened birds. The British Trust for Ornithology attributes much of the decline to the switch in sowing crops from spring to autumn. This means that the plants are too tall and dense in the spring for the birds to make their nests, and there is no stubble in winter to provide seeds on which they can feed. Farmers are encouraged to leave patches in their fields unsown, and there are grants available, but according to the BTO, to maximise crop production many farmers make these patches at the side of fields near hedges, which the birds avoid.

The RSPB points out that increased stocking densities on grazing land have made the grass too short for skylarks and has increased the risk of nests being trampled. A switch from hay to silage has resulted in many nests being destroyed by the cutting machinery, because the cuts are more frequent and there is not enough time for a brood to be produced.

The BTO is running a Farmland Appeal to fund research into the problems, which affect other birds too, and you can see details here.

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The gunneras are probably close to maximum size now, though they will continue to put up new leaves until the first frosts. So here is a look back at the first picture on February 26, with the old stems lying on the ground:

  And this is yesterday:


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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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