Singing Skylarks

Photo by Chris Gomersall/2020Vision 

The song of the skylark is a quintessential feature of our farmland and grassland habitats. One of our Healing Nature Project Officers, Mandy Bell, takes us on an emotive journey through The Folly and Barlow Burn, as she explains more about the skylark; their habitat, what they eat, and how you can help to conserve their plummeting population.

Leaving the noise and grime of the main road behind, I followed the gravel path that wound its way up the hill, through The Folly, and then onto Barlow Burn, my eventual destination. There was not a cloud to be seen in the speedwell-coloured sky and after a chilly early start, the sight of the sun overhead was a welcome sign.

The earth is beginning to awaken from its winter slumber; pollen coated pussy willows Salix caprea danced in the light wind and the blackthorn Prunus spinosa was adorned in dazzling clouds of white flowers. At first glance, the meadows on either side of the path looked drab and still asleep but then as I looked closer I realised that they were dotted with clumps of egg yolk yellow flowers. From a distance, they looked very similar but on closer inspection, I could see that there was a mixture of cowslips, Primula veris, with their bell shaped flowers, dangling like a bunch of keys and the open flowers of primroses, Primula vulgaris, with their darker yellow-orange centres. Cowslips and primroses are an important early source of nectar for many hungry insects and as I looked a queen bumblebee inserted its long tongue, which can be as long as 2 cm, into one of the tubular flowers to drink the life-giving nectar.

It was as I walking back from examining the spring flowers that I disturbed a skylark Alauda arvensis, - it rose straight up from the ground, flapping its wings faster and faster to gain height. As it flew higher and higher it began to sing, a song that seemed to fill my heart with pure joy, no wonder the song of the skylark has been celebrated in so many poems and songs throughout the ages.

Skylark battle

Photo by Luke Massey/2020Vision 

In a space of a minute, three other males joined it, becoming tiny brown specks hovering effortlessly high in the sky, all-singing complicated but beautiful songs, defending their territories as well as trying to catch the attention of a female. I stopped awhile, enjoying the ‘exaltation of skylarks’ for what seemed like ages, waiting for them to end their heavenly songs. Apparently, the stamina required to sustain long song flights allows the females to assess male quality, without the males needing to adorn themselves with bright feathers.

Neck ache made me walk back to the footpath and it wasn’t until I reached the top of the hill that the singing stopped- song flights of up to an hour have been recorded. As I looked back I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the skylark as it parachuted down to land in amongst the grass tufts: an inconspicuous streaky brown bird with a white crest, which can be raised when excited or alarmed and a white-sided tail. It is somewhat larger than a sparrow but smaller than a starling.

Skylarks like the open countryside, from lowland farmland to upland moorland - the Folly but particularly Barlow Burn, are some of the best places to catch a glimpse of them. They are present throughout the year but it is in the breeding season – March to July- that you really notice them- when they sing.

They are ground-nesting birds, laying two to six grey-white, thickly spotted eggs, in a hollow on the ground, lined by the female with leaves, grasses, and hair.

Skylarks eat a wide range of foods, mostly seeds - cereal grains and weed seeds. Occasionally, they will eat small invertebrates such as beetles, spiders, and bugs. In winter, they forage for weed spills and spilled grain and when food is scarce will eat the green shoots of winter-sown cereals.

For me the song of the skylark is the quintessential feature of our farmland and grassland habitats but sadly their numbers have been in decline since the 1970’s when many farmers started farming their land more intensively.  Increased stock on grazing land has made the grass too short for skylarks and increased the risks of nests being trampled. Farmers started to grow their cereals in the spring rather than in the autumn. This means that the crops are too tall and dense to allow skylarks in the breeding season to raise more than one brood. Unfortunately, skylarks need to raise 2-3 broods of young each year in order to maintain a healthy population.

 Winter is a difficult time for all birds but particularly seed eaters like skylarks. Fewer farmers leave stubble, a favourite winter feeding place for spilled grain seed but plough up the land to sow autumn cereal crops.

Meadow restoration is one of the aims of Healing Nature at sites like the Folly, Chopwell East Fields, and Chopwell Meadows, which have long since been neglected. Careful management is the key to their recovery and the hope is that once the meadows are restored the skylark’s numbers will increase. Hopefully, the song of the Skylarks will no longer be a distant memory but a familiar song heard by all to herald the arrival of spring.

Healing Nature is a Green Recovery Challenge Fund project.

How can you help?

The best thing you can do to protect the wildlife on your doorstep is to become a member of your local Wildlife Trust

- Volunteer with Durham Wildlife.

- Keep to the footpaths as you walk around the reserves.

- Keep your dog on the lead, particularly during the nesting season whenever walking through open countryside.

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Gateshead Council
Sunderland City Council
South Tyneside Council