NATURE NOTES: The darling of poets whose numbers are dwindling

It is a fine day: blue skies and sunshine and a breeze ruffling the marram in the dunes.

Skylark in flight. Picture by JJD
Skylark in flight. Picture by JJD

Suddenly the air is full of song; ‘a flood of rapture so divine’ – in the words of Percy Shelley.

For this songbird is the darling of the poets, the skylark.

A skylark. Picture by JJD

Perhaps no other bird has inspired so much verse.

I stop, train my eyes skywards. It is a moment before I spot him – a mere speck two hundred feet above. He hovers mid-air as though suspended by song alone.

Seen on the ground, the Eurasian skylark, alauda arvensis, is unremarkable – a smallish brown bird with a buff streaked breast, somewhere between a sparrow and a starling in size.

It is longer in wings and tail than other larks and raises a crest on its head when excited or alarmed.

It is for its song that this bird is known – a joyous, bubbling cadence usually lasting up to ten minutes.

Their song gave the birds their collective noun: ‘an exaltation’. The males sing to woo the females, proving their physical prowess by their unbroken song and flight.

Country lore once held that the lark sang directly above its nest – that one might simply drop a plumb line to discover it. But the bird is wilier than that, landing some distance away and scurrying unobtrusively to its woven cup of grass.

The skylark’s nests are often situated close to paths or tracks. The female lays between three and five eggs, which are greyish in colour with large brown speckles.

She begins incubating after the last egg is laid. It will be 11 days before they hatch, their camouflage rendering them hard to spot.

Tracing the desire lines through the dunes, walkers proceed unaware of the bright-eyed bird only a yard away, sitting alert on her nest.

Or perhaps she is high above, keenly conscious of the vulnerability of her speckled eggs.

To stray from the paths or desire lines, however tempting, may spell ruin for the birds – a stray size nine could be fatal. Meanwhile, dogs – high-tailed, wet-nosed and unwitting – may likewise wreak havoc if not kept on short leads in the duneland.

Skylarks need all the help they can get. Once heralded as the sound of summer in farmland and dunes, their song has become increasingly scarce around the UK.

Skylark numbers have declined dramatically in recent years. According to the RSPB, during the 1990s, the UK population of skylarks halved, and the birds are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Their plummeting numbers are attributed largely to changes in farming practices.

In arable farmland, the widespread switch from spring to autumn-grown cereals has meant a huge reduction in the numbers of chicks raised, with the denser, taller autumn crop providing fewer nesting sites.

The lack of stubble fields in winter leaves the birds bereft of an important feeding place, while increased insecticide and weedkiller use strips the birds of a food supply – skylarks feed on insects, seeds and other plant material.

Increased grazing on farmland crops the grass too short for the birds to make their nests, and increases the risk of nests being trampled. Meanwhile, the replacement of hay with silage in many places means nests are often destroyed by cutting machinery.

While nationally, the picture for skylarks is a troubling one, here in the dunes of Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, there is hope yet for this bonny bird. Skylarks are locally abundant, with a buoyant population bucking the national trend.

Let us hope that for Northumberland and the rest of the country, the sound of a fine day in the dunes may ever be the lark’s liquid melody.

In Coleridge’s words – a final nod to the poets, for this muse amongst birds – we may hope: ‘The green fields below him, the blue sky above/ That he sings, and he sings, and forever sings he.’

Ceris Aston is an apprentice at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve and author of Twitter: @insocrates