Nature > Birds > Skylark

 

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APRIL - THE SKYLARK

Some birds, like the red kite, stand out because they are spectacular aerial acrobats. Some, like the little goldfinch, have distinctive colourful plumage. Others, like the heron, literally stand tall above the rest.

The skylark is a small brown bird. Between a sparrow and a starling in size. Whilst on the ground, it is unremarkable, inconspicuous and silent.

But once in the air, it floats and soars, all the time producing the most wonderful continuous warbling song. In fact, that is normally how you will see the skylark; recognise its distinctive song, scan the sky carefully and you can usually spot the “small brown bird” fluttering high.

Follow the bird to the ground, and its song will stop the instant it touches down. With binoculars, you should be able to see that it is a streaky brown bird with a small crest, which can be raised when the bird is excited or alarmed, and a white-sided tail. The wings also have a white rear edge, which can be seen in flight.

WHERE TO SEE IT

The “Beating the Bounds” walk around the parish boundary on May Day bank holiday is a good opportunity to spot the skylark, as the route takes you across its ideal habitat north of Hareway Lane. The song of the skylark in April and May is a sure sign that Spring has arrived.

The skylark is a bird of open farmland and can be found on pastureland, arable fields and rank grassland. It avoids isolated trees and tall hedges.

WIDESPREAD, BUT IN STEEP DECLINE

SkylarkAlthough still widespead throughout Britain, and resident year round, its numbers have declined considerably in recent years. In fact, the UK breeding population of skylarks on lowland farmland fell by 54% between 1969 and 1991.

Although the rate of decline slowed in the 1980’s, it has continued since, and the recent and dramatic population decline gives cause for concern. The skylark is now a “Red List” species.

(This review of British birds covers a total of 247 species and each species has been placed onto one of three lists - red, amber or green. Forty species are on the red list, 121 are amber-listed, and 86 are green-listed. To read more about the "Red List" in "The State of the UK's Birds", click here.

As a result of considerable reasearch, by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and others, several reasons have been put forward to explain the skylark’s decline. The skylark feeds on seeds and insects, but intensive management of arable fields has reduced weeds and insect prey through the use of agrochemicals. An increased trend to autumn-sown cereals has reduced the number of essential winter stubble fields and may provide unsuitable breeding habitat in comparison with spring-sown varieties. Lowland grassland has been converted to arable, and grassland itself is now more intensively managed. Finally, early silage cutting destroys nests and exposes eggs and young to predators, while the period between cuts is often too short for successful incubation.

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP

In order to help the skylark, it is becoming increasingly important that current farming practices are modified to create a more conservation friendly environment. In particular, an increase in winter stubbles and spring-sown cereals, would greatly benefit skylarks. Even within current farming practices, things can be done. For instance, provision of beetle banks away from field boundaries and placing set-aside in large blocks would create suitable foraging habitat for skylarks.

The RSPB has recently purchased a 180 hectare farm in Cambridgeshire which will be used to investigate and develop new “wildlife-friendly” farming methods to benefit bird species like the skylark. The farm will allow the RSPB to carry out a detailed programme of research to devise and test new cropping techniques, which farmers will be able to incorporate on farms throughout the UK. The techniques are designed to provide specific wildlife benefits currently on trial, and include the provision of uncropped nesting areas (skylark scrapes), with less intensive cultivation techniques that leave seeds in the fields for birds in winter.

Leaflets are available from the RSPB for farmers, landowners and managers giving advice on measures to take to help skylarks and other birds.

The skylark is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to kill, injure or take an adult skylark, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents. The only exception is legitimate farming practices that cannot reasonably be delayed, although farming methods can often be modified to reduce the impact on the skylarks.

For audio and video clips of the skylark on the RSPB website, click here.


For more information on the BTO website, click here.


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