Trail bikes frightened off poor skylarks

A walker reading one of my pocket-book West Cork walking guides contacted me to say that, although she had walked a saltmarsh behind Garafeen Strand near Kilbrittain for 10 years, she had never seen the skylarks I mentioned in my book. 

Trail bikes frightened off poor skylarks

Were skylarks there at one time?

I replied to say they were. I saw them climb the sky and heard them sing in spring and summer. I once found a nest in early May. However, my book was published in 1996.

Something must have since changed on the fringes of that saltmash and dune system.

For some some years in the early 2000s, I believe, trail bikes wreaked havoc on the dunes, and the noise was enough to scare any wild creature away. That was stopped but maybe it had its effect.

It’s sad to hear they’re gone.

Nothing is more pleasant than to lie on the grass of a summer day and watch the larks ascending to vanishing point and returning to earth on widespread, fluttering wings, raining down song.

Larks’ nests were the first nests I was able to show my children. When I lived in England, we would drive down from London to Camber Sands and camp there on summer weekends.

Larks nested all around us. The nests were easy to find: Descending from the vault of blue, the bird would alight a few yards from its nest.

When it rose again, we’d hurry off to find the teepee of grass stems drawn together, sheltering a cosy, down-lined cup holding a clutch of brown, speckled eggs.

We’d whisper in awe as we peered in, especially when downy nestlings lay asleep in a pink ball, shaded from the sun.

While the Eurasian skylark (its full title) is on the Threatened Species List here and in various other European countries, it is not endangered globally because of its vast distribution, being native across the northern hemisphere from Japan to Ireland (in Africa, only Morocco) and introduced in the Antipodes and north America, carried, no doubt, from the Old World to the New by emigrants for whom its song would recall the home acres.

The song was beloved. Samuel Ferguson, the Belfast poet, wrote the well-known love lyric ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’ with the lines: “Dear thoughts are in my mind and my soul it soars enchanted/ As I hear the sweet lark sing in the clear air of the day” and Emily Dickinson, the reclusive 19th century New England poet wrote: “Split the lark and you’ll find the music/ Bulb after bulb, in silver rolled/ Scantily dealt to the summer morning/ Saved for your ear when lutes be old.”

As for poems, I’ll be writing my column next week’s from, figuratively, “deep in the Canadian woods”, a phrase I take from the lyric written by TD Sullivan, journalist and 19th century MP from West Cork.

It begins: “Deep in Canadian woods we’ve met, /From one bright island flown; /Great is the land we thread, but yet/ Our hearts are with our own.”

My wife and I will be visiting our son, spending 18 months in Vancouver. A text he sent yesterday further whetted my appetite for our visit. I’ve never been in Canada and always wanted to go.

He wrote: “I saw an incredible spectacle as we passed through a narrow channel on a ferry off Vancouver Island. We passed another ferry and, as it cut through the passage in front of us, it churned up sea life.

"There were more than a dozen bald eagles and vultures swooping on the sea, which was full of massive sea lions competing for the bounty...”

Sea lions and bald eagles! As a boy, my favourite reading was tales of French Canadian trappers, native Americans, beavers, and bears, the Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake, and Hudson’s Bay.

The first job I got, after abandoning medical school in Dublin and going on the road, was as a casual fur-porter in Hudson’s Bay company where, in a heavy jacket, I would descend via a rickety service lift to the dark, Arctic depths of the company’s vaults in the City of London and bring trolleys of frozen furs to the surface for buyers to inspect. That is the nearest I’ve ever been to Canada or Hudson’s Bay.

I won’t be going far north on this visit but, over the month, we’ll borrow my son’s sturdy wagon and drive into the Rocky Mountains, there to camp beside lakes, and under glaciers.

We’ll also ferry out to the many offshore islands and, I hope, enjoy spectacles of sea lions, sea otters, and whales.

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