Sky­larks stunned me, just like the count­less po­ets the bird has hoisted into verse

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Michael Viney

My first en­counter with a singing sky­lark, decades ago, put me flat on my back on the moss of the dunes; a proper pos­ture for awe. The bird had sprung, as larks do, al­most from un­der my feet and spi­ralled up to hang as a speck in the clear air, pour­ing out a cease­less flow of whistlings and trillings that seemed to stun the whole hill­side into lis­ten­ing. They cer­tainly stunned me, just like the count­less po­ets the sky­lark has hoisted into verse.

One could look to sci­ence (flight up to 100m, wings flut­ter­ing at 10 to 12 beats a sec­ond, son­agram with up-and-down pitch pat­tern be­tween 2kHz and 5.5kHz over about six sec­onds, aver­age song up to two or three min­utes but can go on for six). Or could sim­ply set­tle for Shel­ley: “Higher still and higher From the earth thou springest . . . And singing still dost soar, and soar­ing ever singest.”

A lot more is as­sem­bled on­line by a sen­si­tive Amer­i­can blog­ger, who didn’t, one gath­ers, vote for Trump. There are fur­ther from Ce­cil Day-Lewis: “Be strong your fer­vent soar­ing, your sky­ward air! Trem­ble there, a nerve of song!”

And a typ­i­cally ec­static tongue-twister from Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins: “Left hand, off land, I hear the lark as­cend, His rash-fresh re-winded new skeinèd score In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour And pelt mu­sic, till none’s to spill or spend.”

Ted Hughes, whose sky­lark may have soared in Con­nemara, is pre­dictably darker: “The lark be­gins to go up Like a warn­ing As if the globe were un­easy . . . You stop to rest, far up, you teeter Over the drop . . . Then up and up and up Like a mouse with drown­ing fur Bob­bing and bob­bing at the well-wall.”

The globe is in­deed un­easy, as one in eight of its bird species is threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion. As farm­ing in­ten­si­fies, Europe’s sky­larks are down by al­most half, and in Ire­land by 30 per cent, since 1970.

It is no longer breed­ing in many parts of the south and east, its nest­ing re­treat­ing to up­lands, coastal mar­gins and is­lands. On the grassy machair be­hind the dunes, be­low me, Michael Longley has pic­tured the spring tide “seep­ing after sun and moon / To pour cup­fuls into the larks’ nests”.

De­spite such un­ease I shall be lis­ten­ing for the lark as dawn bright­ens to­mor­row, quite prob­a­bly from the com­fort of my pil­low. It is one of the host of dif­fer­ent birds that will be heard break­ing into song across the planet. Be­tween Ire­land’s mid­night and 7am their cho­rus will be broad­cast on RTÉ Ra­dio 1, as well as to lis­ten­ers across Europe and Aus­tralia.

An English sky­lark re­searcher, Eric Simms, a sound recordist as well as or­nithol­o­gist, be­gan all this more than half a cen­tury ago. He or­gan­ised the syn­chro­nised record­ing, in early June 1951, of the spread of the dawn cho­rus across the UK.

Sky­larks an­tic­i­pated the rise in light as it rolled across these is­lands from north­east to south­west. Their first song was recorded at 01.30 GMT in Scot­land’s Cairn­gorms, 01.51 in Northumberland, 02.20 in Kent, 02.27 in Stafford­shire, 02.28 in Co Antrim, 02.33 in Lan­cashire (a bit late in in­dus­trial haze) and 02.36 in south Wales.

At RTÉ Derek Mooney and his Mooney Goes Wild team of ex­perts pi­o­neered the broad­cast­ing of the Ir­ish dawn cho­rus some two decades ago, then ex­tended live trans­mis­sion across Europe through links with other pre­sen­ters as far as Rus­sia.

In 2016 this tri­umphant cap­ture of the

At RTÉ Derek Mooney and his ‘Mooney Goes Wild’ team of ex­perts pi­o­neered the broad­cast­ing of the Ir­ish dawn cho­rus some two decades ago

ex­quis­ite avian sound, with hu­man com­men­tary in a mur­mur of na­tional ac­cents, won the pro­gramme the Rose d’Or award for the Euro­pean ra­dio event of the year. To­mor­row’s dawn cho­rus will track the songs of myr­iad species, from the trop­ics to the tun­dra, in their first wel­come to the day.

For some of Ire­land’s sky­larks, mean­while, there is prom­ise of a bet­ter fu­ture. In the Bride Val­ley of east Cork – where, I’m told, the bird is “just hang­ing on in pock­ets here and there” – a five-year pilot project has been launched to re­ward farm­ers for ac­tions en­cour­ag­ing wildlife.

In the logo of the new Bride Project (“Farm­ing with Na­ture”) a sky­lark is poised above bands of green and gold, de­not­ing the grass and corn­fields that com­prise its ideal habi­tat. Farm man­age­ment plans will of­fer the birds patches of un­grazed pas­ture to nest in, and un­sprayed stub­ble fields for win­ter feed.

A Scot­tish sky­lark re­searcher, Diane Hendry, wrote an anx­ious poem about her job: “I worry that sky­larks have been ex­pelled, be­come dis­si­dent birds. I try to pre­tend they are sim­ply out of fash­ion, like Shel­ley but se­cretly I am afraid they have been hushed up.”

In Bride Val­ley, let’s hope, they’ll soon be back in full num­ber, and “soar­ing ever singest”.

Sky­lark: a cease­less flow of whistlings and trillings. IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MICHAEL VINEY

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