People who spend a lot of time watching birds (the correct term is birders, not birdwatchers) speak of getting an extra thrill from seeing a bird in its ‘right’ place. For example, seeing a pied flycatcher in its ancient oakwood breeding habitat rather than at the seaside, when it’s on migration.
For the skylark, the ‘right’ place must be the open downlands of southern England. Although the bird occurs on coastal marshes, moorland and lowland farms, it seems to be at its most alluring when performing its stirring song flight from above the chalk ridges and hills where our distant ancestors built their hillforts, henges and barrows. Perhaps these ancient people paused in their work as we pause on our walks to enjoy the exultant cascade of notes, which drive back winter’s gloom this month.
It’s no surprise that composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – inspired by the skylark’s melodies – is regularly voted Britain’s favourite piece of classic music. William Wordsworth also
wrote about the bird in To a Skylark, remarking “Up with me! up with me into the clouds! For thy song, lark, is strong”.
Like most bird species, it’s the male who has all the songs. He tries to dominate a patch of sky in order to out-sing neighbours and woo females. The birds with the widest repertoire of songs are more likely to attract mates.
Apart from their songs, skylarks are unobtrusive birds. They nest on the ground and rely on their soft, brown-flecked plumage to hide them. When you’re walking on downland, the first skylark you’re likely to see is one bursting from a grassy hideout almost beside the footpath. But once you get your eye in, you can spot the black speck on blue sky as the male yo-yos upwards, singing his tiny heart out.
Before bluebells steal everyone’s attention, ramsons – wild garlic – rules the woodland floor. When passers-by – animal as well as human – brush against its luxuriant green blades, a thick garlicky smell descends over footpaths, clearings and rides.
By April, it sends up stems with a cluster of tiny white flowers. In some woodlands, this white bloom coincides with the flowering of early bluebells and you can see waves of blue and white flowers sweeping over the woodland floor between the trees.
Something that will make your heart start thumping faster: a vast shadowy torpedo that isn’t a submerged log. If the water’s clear enough, you’ll make out the huge tail fin, sleek mottled green body and shark-like head of a pike. It will be motionless, endlessly patient, waiting for a smaller fish to swim within range, before surging forward with horrifying speed to engulf its victim.
Pike breed at this time of year – smaller males pursue huge females into shallow weed beds where the mighty fish thrash around as they spawn. It’s an epic event that’s seldom seen by humans.
The first hedgerow flower to appear, blackthorn bursts with clouds of small, starry-white flowers that look especially fragile beside the shrub’s vicious thorns. Once this beautiful display of flowers is over, blackthorn comes into its own in autumn, when it bears small plum-like fruits known as sloes.
Like rooks, grey herons get a head start on the seasons by building their nests before winter ends. Herons build rather untidy nests in the tops of trees, but considering that these birds are all leg, beak and neck, building anything in a precarious location is admirable.
Herons tend to nest in colonies of anything up to 30 nests in locations that are used year after year. If you think they’re noisy now, wait until April when the chicks are growing and demanding food. The birds produce an extraordinary sound as they clatter their beaks – from a distance it sounds like a steam train chugging along.
Here are five great places to see heron colonies in action:
Battersea Park, London
West Sedgemoor RSPB Reserve, Somerset
Brownsea Island, Dorset
Ellesmere mere, Shropshire
WWT Washington Tyne and Wear