No other British bird is capable of sustaining such a loud and complex song while hovering so far above the ground, rapidly beating its wings to stay aloft, as the skylark.
For upwards of fifteen minutes its ‘rich silver chain of sound of many links without a break,’ cascades down from a pinnacle perhaps of 150 metres; simply a black dot in a sea of blue but a tour de force of nature.
It’s no accident male skylarks have perfected their aerial performance. It’s simply they like open country and as it is devoid of high perches resort to long song flights to establish territorial rights – broadcasting their presence to rivals and potential mates. Their stamina in maintaining the song flight is regarded by the females as an ‘honest signal’ of male quality, no need for bright plumage so they’ve kept their cryptic, brown and streaked colouration that’s afforded them protection from predators on the ground.
Predators in the air, such as a merlin, can be put off by older, more experienced sky-wise larks, which turn up the volume on being threatened as if to say ‘catch me if you can’!
The open terrain of the Borders suits them, from the coastal fringes of Berwickshire with its cliffs and sandy margins through all types of farmland including arable, pasture, grassy moorland and open scrub to the summits of the highest hills. The only essential is that it must provide areas of short herbage for insects and seeds, as well as for nesting. Consequently they are amongst the most widespread species to be seen and especially heard when one traverses open country along an old drove road – a fusion of distant views with a rain of melody.
As many as 90 pairs can occupy a square kilometre though the average is a lot less and has been declining fast on arable land where more efficient herbicides and autumn sowing has reduced the amount of wild seed available. Autumn-sown crops also mean the vegetation is generally too tall and too dense to allow the birds to nest later in the season. Fortunately the problem is being addressed to some extent through agri-environment schemes, whereby farmers are paid to create small ‘skylark plots’ in large fields by simply leaving bare patches of unsown ground ideal for the birds to forage.
But it is on the high ground in spring surrounded by distant hills where best to appreciate their presence now. On the track from Bonchester Heights to Ruberslaw, skylarks were ringing up, trilling out an incessant outpouring of exuberance last Sunday afternoon.
In the face of the dazzling sun they were invisible, only their triumphant voices a glorious giveaway. So too were the welcome calls of distant curlew and lapwing quite in tune with the hill pasture landscape thereabouts.
Where the car was parked, some distance away on the other side of the road, the local model flying club was in action – a radio-controlled sailplane doing a very good imitation of a hen harrier quartering the ground where incidentally I’d seen the real thing some years ago. A helicopter too was rising up manfully through a cloud of fumes.
It would seem the wonder of flight in all its guises will always be a spectacle.