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