The skylark is a bird everyone loves to hear, warbling excitedly as it rises into the air and signalling the coming of summer. Little wonder that in mythology and folklore it is an omen of good luck and everything positive.
You think of Samuel Ferguson’s poem: “Dear thoughts are in my mind/ And my soul soars enchanted,/ As I hear the sweet lark sing/ In the clear air of the day.”
International Dawn Chorus Day is Sunday next, May 5, and Mooney Goes Wild on RTÉ, will be doing what it describes as an epic broadcast, with birdsong from some faraway corners of the world.
In his book, Irish Birds, published almost a quarter century ago, David Cabot wrote there were around half a million breeding pairs of skylarks in Ireland. However, more recent studies show a 30% drop since 1970, due mainly to a loss of feeding and nesting areas.
For all that, this little bird is still found in many parts of the country, in farmland, bogs and sand-dunes. We recently saw and heard it on both sides of the Shannon Estuary — in Lahinch, Co Clare, and Ballybunion, Co Kerry.
Working in the bog, long ago, I remember almost stumbling on a skylark daily, which would then launch itself out of the heather after being surprised. It would soar into the air, rising and rising until it rested almost suspended, wings flapping and balancing itself in the wind. A lark can ascend to around 100m, warbling all the way with its shrill ‘chirrup’ sound before it hovers over you.
That bog is now covered in trees and the lark is rarely heard there. Current farming-for-nature programmes such as that in Bride Valley, east Cork, aim to improve habitat for skylarks and other wildlife by, essentially, not cultivating specific patches of land.
Matters are more advanced in parts of the UK where entire farms are dedicated to restoring wildlife and more detailed studies are being carried out. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has, for instance, been closely observing Hope Farm, in Cambridgeshire. There, it has found populations of skylark and other farmland birds have grown in areas where patches of tillage ground are left unsown and the birds can forage.
Sunday’s dawn chorus programme, meanwhile, begins at midnight and ends at 7am. Countries taking part this year include previous favourites like India, Finland, Lithuania, Slovenia, Northern Ireland and Poland. There will also be sounds from Kazakhstan, Bahrain, Israel, Portugal, Italy, Wales and Scotland and live from Kenya, a first-time dawn chorus from Africa.
Hopefully, the lark will be heard clearly: only apt as it is associated with daybreak. Remember ‘The Lark in the Morning’ song?