Skylark (Alauda arvensis): Rural songster extraordinaire.
PERCY SHELLEY'S OBSERVATION that the skylark is a 'scorner of the ground!' may not be entirely accurate -- they nest on the ground after all -- but it is easy to appreciate how he came to this reflection once you have watched these small brown birds performing their towering display flights during the early spring. The arable nature of Norfolk's farmland provides ideal nesting habitat for the space-loving skylark, particularly the hay and silage meadows. These are the very places you will find the larks, for they are creatures of open country.
Belonging to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes -- perching birds -- they form the family group Alaudidae -- larks -- and number seventy-five species in total, of which the skylark has the most global distribution, with a range stretching from Britain, across the continent of Europe, into Asia and terminating in northern Japan, occupying breeding grounds that reach all the way from northern Africa to the Arctic Circle.
Within this range the size and appearance of the larks can vary, with adaptations to habitat and vegetation being the main cause of these differences, where birds of the northern climes are larger than their southern cousins. In biological parlance, this is referred to as 'cline' and the birds that we encounter in Norfolk's fields will more often than not be larger than those found in the Mediterranean, dressed in plumage best matched to grassy habitats as opposed to the dry, dusty terrain of southern Europe.
Knowing whether or not you are in suitable skylark country is a question quickly answered once March is upon us, the cock birds unable to contain their excitement now that spring is finally here are impossible to miss, not necessarily with your eyes, but with your ears. They deliver their unmistakable warbling song in an outpouring of fast paced chirrups, whistles and phrases that are often stolen from other species of birds, for male skylarks are often given to mimicry, and climb several hundred feet into the clear blue sky until out of sight, all the while getting louder and louder, until they peak and hover on the breeze for five minutes or more, releasing a non stop torrent of sound.
The best time to enjoy the company of these rural songsters is the late spring and early summer, particularly in areas where open pastures and late sown cereal crops predominate the landscape. Don't worry if you miss the springtime show however, for once the larks have moulted their worn-out feathers during the months of August and September, a time when their breeding grounds fall eerily silent, they will form roving flocks throughout the winter months -- sometimes two-hundred and fifty or more -- and regularly frequent stubble fields that remain untouched by the plough.
Once the male skylark has completed his burst of song, he will fall silent and rapidly drop on closed wings. Don't take your eyes off him though, for at the last moment he will open both wings and fan out his tail, completing his descent in a spectacular parachute fashion.
It is difficult to think that the male birds do not enjoy performing their own melodies, rendered with such vigour, but there is a double-edged purpose to these high-energy theatrics: to secure a territory and attract a mate. It is no coincidence that as soon as the first lark is in the sky, often before sunrise, others will quickly follow, stimulated by an impulse not to be outdone by a neighbour, or worse, lose ground to him. Before long, the dawn sky will be imbued with their powerful singing. It is uncertain whether the duration of the cock bird's song has any influence over his territorial claim, but a powerful performance will no doubt influence both the hen bird and his rivals. After a rapid descent to the ground, he will hop and jump around his mate with fluttering wings in a bid to woo her; for the most part, she will just ignore him and continue in her search for the perfect divot -- often made by the hoof of bovine or horse -- where she will make her nest.
During his rarely seen ground courtship display, the cock skylark will jump and hop excitedly in front of his prospective mate. Hoping to clinch her affections after his dramatic song flight is performed, this male was oblivious to my presence in his field.
Staring at a large round piece of glass situated amongst scrim-cloth and wet grass, a cock skylark ponders on what he just landed next to. Moments later, he is spiralling high-up in the air, delivering the unmistakable burst of song for which they are famous.
A male skylark checks out his pastoral surroundings. He has just landed after delivering a burst of song from high above and, momentarily, needs to find his bearings. Meanwhile, his hen is more interested in eating breakfast a few meters away.