FOR MANY OF THE COUNTY'S ORNITHOLOGISTS AND NATURALISTS the first signs of spring's transition towards summer is the arrival of swallows returning into their farmyard dwellings or the familiar echoing call of a cuckoo over sylvan green pastures on the stillest of mornings: this is not necessarily the case for those living in the Thetford Forest and Breckland area, whose ears are tuned to a different call. They are listening out for the fluting song of the woodlark, whose mellow tune is most often delivered in a circling flight over a favoured breeding territory, rising in tempo as altitude is gained before bursting into tune, a liquid 'lull-loo-lull-loo-lull-loo', peaking in mid-air before beginning to hover and spiral on frantically flapping wings.
The larks are a predominantly Old World order of birds with only two species known to live in the Americas, the seventy-three remaining species living and breeding in Europe and Africa. They are referred to as ground dwellers, spending the majority of their time walking and running (never hopping) about their preferred habitat which, for the majority of them is grassy land, open and dry with sparse groundcover in the form of young saplings and scrub. However, the woodlark tends to break the family mould in this regard and has a distinct preference for breeding territories that contain a mix of partially developed scrub, broken woodland and forest clearings.
It may seem slightly contradictory in modern nature conservation parlance when suggesting a commercial forestry plantation has been a lifeline for East Anglia's woodlark population, the U.K.'s stronghold. Nonetheless, almost as quickly as the woodlark's much favoured heathland breeding sites were torn up and replaced with legions of softwood saplings, an impromptu breeding habitat was created. The outcome of which has resulted in the highest number of nesting pairs of woodlark in the last 150 years. The clear fell areas that punctuate Thetford Forest have provided an ideal place to build the grassy cup that is used as a nest, often located close to short vegetation or hidden between rows of pine saplings: a yin-and-yang of the most unexpected origins.
The woodlarks that live within the Breckland area are predominantly resident throughout the year, beginning breeding during March. When favourable weather conditions persist, the fledging of up to three broods of chicks before the end of high-summer is possible. It is interesting to watch the activities around the nest once the chicks have been hatched, when both parent birds tend to the newcomers. Relentless trips back-and-forth are the order of the day, with the parents somehow finding an endless source of invertebrates to stuff into the gaping mouths of their hungry youngsters: of particular amusement is the apple-green glow of beak-full after beak-full of caterpillars that decorate the otherwise unidentifiable crush of insects hanging out of the adult's bills during their hectic feeding sorties. In a bid to avoid bringing undue attention to their nest full of chicks, the nurturing parents, carrying a full shipment of food, will alight on a nearby bush or pine sapling, often some meters away from the nest site, before dropping to the ground and walking 10-meters or more to deliver their cargo.
A woodlark alights, beak full of food, on a pine tree. Rather than flying directly to their nest full of hungry chicks, woodlarks take a wary approach, preferring to land atop a lookout perch. On the all- clear, they will drop down to feed the youngsters. (Photograph taken under licence from Natural England.)
Resting for a brief moment in between near non-stop relays of delivering food to its young, an adult woodlark takes stock of the surrounding forestry plantation. (Photograph taken under licence from Natural England.)
If you don't know what you're looking for, it is very easy to overlook the location of a woodlark's nest. They are beautifully hidden amongst ground vegetation, quite often located at the base of long grasses or young pine saplings. (They are also protected by law, so please keep your distance.)