Species Update

While the Sky Lark’s world pop­u­la­tion is strong, its UK de­cline con­tin­ues at a wor­ry­ing pace

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Kate Risely is the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy’s Gar­den Bird­watch Or­gan­iser

The common Sky Lark is in trou­ble, says Kate Risely

BIRD MI­GRA­TION IS an amaz­ing nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non, and, at this time of year, signs of move­ment are all around us. Some of these are clear, such as the first Red­wings ar­riv­ing for the winter, but oth­ers are more sub­tle, such as the in­creased vis­i­bil­ity of Sky Larks as they start to shift from their breed­ing to win­ter­ing ar­eas. While Sky Larks are common and wide­spread through­out the UK in both summer and winter, the Bird­track re­port­ing rate graph shows that they are far more no­tice­able at cer­tain times of year. One of these times, of course, is the height of the breed­ing sea­son, when they draw attention to them­selves with cas­cad­ing songs. In Au­gust and Septem­ber, we no­tice them much less, as they stop singing and go to ground. In Oc­to­ber, how­ever, they ap­pear again, both in the skies and in our records, be­cause they are on the move. Sky Larks are nat­u­rally birds of steppe grass­lands, and over thou­sands of years their pop­u­la­tions have tracked the spread of arable and low-in­ten­sity pas­toral farm­ing. In Bri­tain and Ire­land they are mostly found in low­land farm­land, par­tic­u­larly in east­ern Eng­land, as well as on the hills of Eng­land and Wales, and along the western coastal fringes of Scot­land and Ire­land. In the winter, they re­treat from the less hos­pitable up­land habi­tats, con­cen­trat­ing in low­land east­ern ar­eas of Bri­tain, and these move­ments are what we see in the au­tumn. In northern and east­ern parts of their world range, in Scan­di­navia and Rus­sia, they are wholly mi­gra­tory, mov­ing to south­ern Europe in winter, and large num­bers are recorded at our coastal watch points in au­tumn, in­di­cat­ing that con­ti­nen­tal birds are pass­ing through. It seems likely that some of our Bri­tish birds also join these mi­grants, but here our knowl­edge is some­what sparse. While track­ing tech­nolo­gies are al­low­ing us to dis­cover more about the de­tailed move­ments of some at-risk species, most of our gen­eral knowl­edge of bird move­ments comes from decades of bird ring­ing. De­spite be­ing a common species, rel­a­tively few Sky Larks are ringed, nor­mally a few hun­dred a year, and of these few are ever re­cov­ered, as they do not closely as­so­ciate with hu­mans. Only 15 Sky Larks ringed abroad have been found in Bri­tain and Ire­land, and 13 Bri­tish-ringed in­di­vid­u­als have been re­cov­ered abroad. These re­cov­er­ies in­di­cate that Sky Larks come here via the North Sea coasts of Bel­gium, Germany and the Nether­lands, and some go south to France and Ibe­ria, but they do not give us any idea of the scale of in­ter­na­tional move­ments by Bri­tish birds. Though the world Sky Lark pop­u­la­tion is very large, and is thought to be se­cure, de­clines have been recorded across much of Europe, and here in the UK we have lost more than half our breed­ing pop­u­la­tion over 40 years, ac­cord­ing to vol­un­teer mon­i­tor­ing schemes. These de­clines have been linked to agri­cul­tural in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion, in par­tic­u­lar the de­cline of spring ce­re­als and ce­real stub­ble, and in­creases in winter ce­re­als, oilseed rape and in­ten­sively man­aged or grazed grass; changes that are thought to af­fect their nest­ing suc­cess. It’s also likely that the shift to winter ce­re­als has af­fected winter sur­vival of Sky Larks by re­duc­ing the amount of seed-rich stub­ble avail­able. The lat­est com­pleted fig­ures from the Breed­ing Bird Sur­vey show that these de­clines are on­go­ing, mean­ing that the long-term future looks bleak for the birds we see search­ing for a winter refuge.

De­clines have been recorded across much of Europe, and here in the UK we have lost more than half our breed­ing pop­u­la­tion over the last 40 years

SKY LARK One of our common birds is in real trou­ble

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