Saturday, 8 March 2014

Largely about larks

Thekla Lark (Caroline Davison)
It is probably almost impossible to be out in open country in Extremadura, at any time of the year, and not to see and hear larks. Indeed, the choice of those two sensory verbs is too restricting, because larks are more like constant companions: there are times when it is much more than seeing and hearing, suggesting the successful outcome of a search, larks actually embrace one. They enter moments of solitude, gently drawing one out of introspection, like messengers of life itself. Many times a lark will be singing from flight, so high above that it can take minutes to track the circling bird against the blue sky, and all of the time we hope that it will choose to continue its song, to give us a chance to detect it before it vanishes from view.

Particularly in the traditionally-farmed plains, larks are common birds in Extremadura and we can enjoy the presence of five species in the spring and summer, and five species too in the winter. There are six species in all, with the wintering Skylark swapping its place in our lark community with the Greater Short-toed Lark, a summer visitor. The time of overlap between these two species in March and September is so short that one is lucky indeed to find both at the same time. Some Skylark do nest in Extremadura, but only high above the tree-line on the Gredos Mountains.

A guest of ours, Caroline Davison, took the fine study of the Thekla Lark above. The species was named by the 19th century German ornithologist, Christian Ludwig Brehm in memory of his daughter Thekla who died when she was just 26. It is a species with a curiously disjunct distribution, confined largely to the Iberian Peninsular and north-west Africa, with another population in the Horn of Africa. It is more common in Extremadura than many people realize, in much of the steppic habitat outnumbering the very similar Crested Lark. However, these two species can be hard to separate, indeed the more experienced the observer is, the more careful she or he will be: with experience comes the realization that there is considerable variation within the two species and some overlap between some of the field characters. Caroline's photo shows beautifully the rather short, straight bill of the Thekla, its almost goggled-appearance caused by pale feathers around the eye, the well-defined dark streaks on the breast and its greyish-brown plumage tone. The picture also shows  very well the extremely long hind claw, which is a curious feature of many species of lark, as well as pipits. On a hot, dusty track in summer it is common to find the footprints of larks, easily told by the impression left behind by this appendage.

The Crested Lark below, whilst sporting like the Thekla a rather stiff crest, is a somewhat slenderer bird, with more sandy-brown plumage and a bill which is longer and very slightly curved. Its breast streaking is more diffuse and it lacks the rather rusty tone to the base of the rump shown by Thekla.

Crested Lark (John Hawkins)
Sometimes on the plains one can see these two species literally side-by-side, when the difference in their shapes is obvious. In such areas, both species are found, but there are differences too in habitat choice, with the Crested favouring arable land and settled areas, with Theklas common in scrubby areas, often where there are rocky outcrops and areas of rough pasture. There are subtle differences in call, whilst the Thekla's song reveals imitations of high fidelity of birds like Linnets and Goldfinches. The master lark of mimicry is however the stocky Calandra Lark, the biggest of them all with a hefty bill and the appearance of wearing a black shirt collar. As John Hawkins' photo below shows, it has a very broad white trailing edge to the wing and an underwing which look almost black.

Calandra Lark (John Hawkins)
But it is its sheer exuberant personality which is so attractive, the flurry of activity as a foursome or five some chase each other with abandon low over the swaying grasses and spring flowers of the open plains, a landscape which this species effectively claims as its own. And the many times I have stood gazing upwards at the magical deliberation of the slow-motion wing flaps of a singing Calandra Lark, counting the species imitated to perfection and waiting until it offers from its repertoire, as almost all do, the urgent alarm call of Green Sandpiper.

In the mosaic landscape of the high dry plains, one does not have to look far for a field ploughed and left to rest, or the bare earth of the strip running beside the boundary of a meadow, which acts as a fire-break. This is the favoured habitat of the smallest of the larks, the Greater Short-toed, which can often also be seen on the sun-baked surface of dirt tracks.

Greater Short-toed Lark (John Hawkins)
In contrast to the seemingly endless medley of bird song given to us from the Calandra, the modest Greater Short-toed Lark has a simple song, comprising mainly of rattles and single notes. But it is sung with confidence, mustered as it takes wide circles in a high song flight, at times at such height it disappears from view, only to reappear as it dives back to the ground, its long, sharp pointed wings acting as a brake at the culmination of the stoop.
Skylark (John Hawkins)
In winter, our ventures onto plains and the stubble fields are joined by the parties of Skylarks, sometimes several hundred strong, taking full advantage of the benefits of the Extremadura winter farming landscape where supplies of seed are high. Unlike much arable land of Western Europe, stubble will often remain throughout the winter as fields are given rest after the harvest, and pioneer arable weeds which painted the fields like artists' palates in the spring will have laid down a veritable investment of a seed bank, all sources of energy and nutrients for wintering birds.

Woodlark (John Hawkins)
But for me a winter's day approaches nirvana when I am doing some outdoor chore in the garden, taking advantage of a sunny morning, under blue skies. However lost I may be in daydream musing, the absolute beauty of a simple series of lilting, sweet melodic notes will cause me to pause, look upward and smile. There is no doubt in my mind of the most moving and sublime of all bird song: the Woodlark, whose scientific name Lullula arborea, is both onomatopoeic and a description of habitat. This small, stocky denizen of open woodland is widespread here in Extremadura, and quite easy to identify by combination of its habitat, shape, rather warm toned cheeks, bold supercilium and diagnostic dark and pale patch on the edge of the wing...and its unmistakable song with its quite transcendental qualities. In the spring, if I awake in the middle of the night and take to an open window, the clear sound of Woodlarks in nocturnal song flows into my semi-consciousness.

Even for those with no interest or knowledge of birds, the word association between lark and song is familiar, as is the concept of this song heralding dawn "getting up with the lark" .  It is no wonder that both poets and composers have sought to express through their respective media how this song, which is the evolved tool of these distinctly uncolourfully-plumaged birds for attracting a mate and defending resources, reaches deep inside our own emotions. I suspect the reason is almost primeval, in the same way that we can sit and stare into an open fire, as our ancestors would have done, so generations ago when all of us lived on the land, the song of larks would have been a vivid companion to our being.

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