Wood Lark

Ex­pect the un­ex­pected when it comes to the Wood Lark, a bird that some be­lieve boasts one of the finest songs in Bri­tain

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A charm­ing bird be­lieved by many to boast one of the finest songs in Bri­tain

You would think you couldn’t miss the song of the Wood Lark. It is gen­er­ally re­garded as one of the finest bird songs in Bri­tain, although not enough peo­ple ever hear it to make it a cul­tural icon

THIS AR­TI­CLE BE­GINS by a salt­marsh, which of course is a habi­tat in which Wood Larks don’t oc­cur. The nar­ra­tive be­gins on the south coast at West Wit­ter­ing, West Sus­sex, on an Oc­to­ber morn­ing, grey with a per­sis­tent wind. It is a good ‘vis­i­ble mi­gra­tion’ day when, look­ing up to the sky and lis­ten­ing, a birder can see small birds fly­ing over, caught in the gen­uine act of mi­grat­ing. On such days, the habi­tat on which you stand bears no rel­e­vance to the birds you are see­ing, be­cause they are only pass­ing, not stop­ping.

So here, on an es­tu­ary, I am pick­ing out and count­ing wood­land birds such as Bram­blings and siskins, pas­sen­gers on the breeze which are far from their com­fort zone. Soon in the gloom there is a lilt­ing ‘tit-lueet’. It takes a sec­ond or two for me to re­alise what this is. But a mo­ment later the Wood Lark ap­pears, a bound­ing shape in the sky, short tail and broad wings. There has been a big pas­sage of Sky Larks and Meadow Pip­its to­day, and this is one of their hang­ers-on, caught up in the move­ment. I have no idea where the Wood Lark has come from, nor any idea where it is go­ing. All I know is that it is here in this in­con­gru­ous place by the sea, to­day. Not long ago, I ex­pe­ri­enced another, un­ex­pected Wood Lark mo­ment. On that day, I was at home in east Dorset, busily avoid­ing work, opening an upstairs win­dow to lis­ten for any­thing. Ex­traor­di­nar­ily, on this morn­ing in Septem­ber, the song of a Wood Lark drifted in, the sound com­ing and go­ing as it so of­ten does as the bird drifts and the gusts take it. My home was next to a heath, but I had never heard or seen a Wood Lark there be­fore. Yet, here was a bird singing, pro­claim­ing a ter­ri­tory where it wasn’t sup­posed to be. Wood Larks, it seems, are like that. You can visit a site where they def­i­nitely nest, only to find them strangely ab­sent, or you stum­ble across them un­ex­pect­edly, ris­ing from the close-cropped turf. This could just be my ex­pe­ri­ence. Per­haps you al­ways find them where you look, slav­ishly ad­her­ing to their usual song-posts, or ris­ing above the ex­act slice of ter­ri­tory where they al­ways are? Re­searchers ob­vi­ously have this ex­pe­ri­ence, some­times, be­cause some have re­ported that the tops of conifers have bent over from overuse as Wood Lark song posts. Oh well, it could be that I am get­ting the bird wrong. Yet is there some rea­son, some quirk of be­hav­iour that jus­ti­fies the tag of be­ing hard to pin down? And, is there a rea­son why they are some­times dif­fi­cult to find? The an­swer is yes, there could be.

One rea­son is that Wood Larks are early breed­ers. They be­gin to sing in earnest rather ear­lier than some other birds. Males are of­ten stim­u­lated by un­sea­son­ably warm tem­per­a­tures to be­gin in late Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary, with the peak in March. This is quite a bit ear­lier than most bird­ers visit heath­lands, which are at their best much later on, in late spring. The birds some­times lay their eggs in early April and the males wind down their first singing when some other species are reach­ing a peak. Wood Larks are po­ten­tially very pro­duc­tive birds. Their early start en­ables them to fit two broods in rou­tinely, and some­times three. The sec­ond, mid­dle brood al­ways seems to be the most suc­cess­ful, so both early and late broods would ap­pear to be a bonus. Stud­ies have found that in­di­vid­u­als that started nest­ing ear­lier had more nest­ing at­tempts. How­ever, although such in­di­vid­u­als are ex­pected to achieve higher av­er­age an­nual fledg­ing suc­cess and to con­trib­ute more re­cruits, nei­ther ef­fect was sig­nif­i­cant in a sam­ple of 29 and 46 ter­ri­to­ries over two years, due to high lev­els of sto­chas­tic nest losses through pre­da­tion. Another rea­son that you some­times can’t pin down Wood Larks is that breed­ing pairs seem to oc­cur in clumps, leav­ing ap­par­ent suit­able habi­tat in be­tween oddly ne­glected. Sev­eral stud­ies have shown this, and one in Dorset showed that there can be any­thing be­tween a sin­gle kilo­me­tre and six kilo­me­tres be­tween ‘set­tle­ments’ of birds. The nests of neigh­bour­ing pairs may be only a few tens of me­tres apart, yet far detached from th­ese other clumps. This cu­ri­ous ar­range­ment hap­pens with other birds, too, such as Quails, but as far as I am aware, no­body has ever ex­plained the rea­son for it. You would think you couldn’t miss the song of the Wood Lark. It is gen­er­ally re­garded as one of the finest bird songs in Bri­tain, although not enough

peo­ple ever hear it to make it a cul­tural icon, like the Sky Lark – Vaughan Wil­liams’ The Lark As­cend­ing could have had a mo­men­tous, melodic sec­ond move­ment if the com­poser had worked on a com­ple­men­tary species. It is noth­ing like a Sky Lark – no out­pour­ings or long phrases. It is quite pipit-like, with notes re­peated in se­quences, but in­stead of the flat, fee­ble ‘sip’ notes of pip­its the song goes up and down in pure, tune­ful semi-tones. The ef­fect of the semi-tone shifts is like the Dop­pler Ef­fect as a siren goes past. It is cer­tainly much more dif­fi­cult to de­scribe than ap­pre­ci­ate! And when the Wood Lark sings, it drifts, phys­i­cally, of­ten de­scrib­ing a long cir­cle over the ter­ri­tory or be­yond its borders. The song is so gen­tle that, from a height in the wind, the notes can be whisked away and you can­not hear it at all. This could be another rea­son why the bird is so eas­ily missed. It also has a habit of singing through the night, es­pe­cially when it is warm and still; that would most cer­tainly be a lovely ex­pe­ri­ence to savour. What about Wood Larks in au­tumn? We know that they will sing at this time of year; in­deed, the song is heard reg­u­larly from mid-septem­ber to mid-oc­to­ber, mainly in the morn­ing. No­body is cer­tain, but it seems that it is mostly young birds that do this, to get some kind of foothold on the property market that will be fought over in earnest in late win­ter. But aren’t Wood Larks mi­grat­ing, vis­i­bly, in Oc­to­ber, rather than pro­claim­ing ter­ri­to­ries? Well, it seems that some are and some aren’t; the species is a par­tial mi­grant. Wood Lark move­ments have in­trigued bird­ers for some time, be­cause some of the birds that breed in Breck­land, in Nor­folk, have been proven to move to south­ern Bri­tain for the win­ter. How­ever, not all do, and many of the birds in other parts of their range, such as the New For­est, seem to be res­i­dent, or at least win­ter close to the breed­ing ar­eas. The pic­ture is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the fact that some birds from fur­ther north or east on the con­ti­nent could mi­grate over here for the win­ter – Sky Larks and Meadow Pip­its cer­tainly do – and some of our birds could em­i­grate to warmer cli­mate. The mi­gra­tion of the Wood Lark presents a com­pli­cated pic­ture. It is hard not to study the move­ments of Wood Larks and re­alise that, at times, they will turn up in un­ex­pected places. And that, in many ways, sums up my ex­pe­ri­ence of this bird. It is un­pre­dictable – and that is part of its charm.

LARK OF THE WOODS Wood Larks are much more ar­bo­real than Sky Larks

TREETOP SINGER Like Tree Pip­its, Wood Larks like to use trees as a song-posts EARLY BIRD Even though they breed early in the year, Wood Larks still need to find plenty of in­ver­te­brates to feed their young

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