Western Morning News

The skylark sings the song of Spring

- PHILIP BOWERN philip.bowern@reachplc.com

THE sounds of spring and summer are many and various. Some conservati­on-minded souls mourn the dramatic drop in turtle dove numbers, not just for its own sake but because the gentle coo the bird makes – quite different from its relative the woodpigeon or the collared dove – sums up the season and its absence is profoundly missed.

To others it is the woodpigeon’s call, five notes – which some say sounds like “take two cows, Taffy” – which is the true sound of spring and summer. As far as I am aware woodpigeon­s only call in the breeding season and are pretty much silent for the rest of the year, which is why when I hear one – sometimes as early as March – it makes me think better weather is on the way.

There is, however, another bird that even more strongly evokes the turning of the year, the warmer sunshine and the greening up of the hillsides and the hedges. Skylarks are the classic farmland bird and make their nests on the ground in arable fields. Although a wheat or barley field in spring might look like a barren monocultur­e to the naturalist, the fact that, once planted and maybe sprayed a couple of times, the field is left largely undisturbe­d til harvest suits the skylark very well. The birds use the bare patches, surrounded by the growing crop as nesting sites.

They are particular­ly attracted to the most open landscapes. Heaths and moors and especially large areas of grassland, like Salisbury Plain, are the idea habitat – especially where over-wintered stubbles are left, providing them with seeds to glean, both from the harvested crop and the weeds that are allowed to grow up after harvest.

On my daily dog walk I often take in a large field of barley that has, thanks to the farmer’s conservati­on efforts, a big strip down one-side of mixed flower and seed-bearing cover-crop. It supports a few pheasants in the winter, who feed on the seeds and hide among the taller plants. The few gamebirds it holds might be driven out, perhaps once or twice in the season, on a small shooting day for friends and family.

But throughout the year in its various states, this 20 yard strip running the whole length of the field, provides food, nesting sites and places to hide for farmland birds. The skylarks will nest nearby, actually in the crop, where they are less likely to be disturbed. Yellowhamm­ers also favour the area and make a welcome splash of colour in the early spring, easily visible against the landscape. And the skylark sings its song of spring, hanging in the air over the green field, brown and speckled, against the bright blue sky.

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