Due to a dreadful weather forecast, my plans to hold another public ringing demonstration in May half term had to be shelved at the last minute. However, because my licenced ringing contact Steve was already committed to the date we decided to have a site meeting to discuss skylarks instead.
We popped up to the area of long grassland on Trow Farm where we regularly see skylarks, early on Friday and watched as birds sang and parachuted around the fields. We’d had a nest fledge chicks last year in this location, but so far this year I had seen plenty of adult skylark activity but no signs of nesting. Had we lost one of the Sanctuary’s scarcest breeding birds?
I needn’t have worried. There were two adult skylarks displaying obvious feeding behaviour, foraging for short periods and returning to the longer grass for quick food drops to young. We were even fortunate enough to come across a juvenile skylark, still incapable of flight near to where we were parked, and we caught it, ringed it and returned it to be fed by mum and dad within minutes.
Sitting by the truck, we thought it looked like three chicks were being fed by these two adult birds, spread out over an area of about 20 square metres, and there were certainly other skylarks in the distance singing from high above. There was no point going in search of these other two chicks; by the time skylarks have left the nest but before they can fly, they are almost impossible to locate unless you are a parent skylark! The chicks will sit tight, deep in the tussocks of grass and you could walk over them and not know. So, instead we watched and enjoyed the spectacle of parental care unfolding in front of us. Linnets, yellowhammers and even a kestrel were also feeding in the immediate area, all of which are farmland birds in dramatic decline across much of the UK.
The first spring I started working at The Donkey Sanctuary I noticed skylarks displaying at Trow Farm; I worked with Alan the farm manager to leave cutting the grass in the area until well into June to allow the skylarks to fledge. This one simple change in routine has probably done more to secure the breeding success of the skylarks than anything else we could have done.
Skylarks are birds which build their nests on the ground and have done so over millennia. Because of this, they are pretty robust to withstanding disturbance and rely on cryptic colouring and brave parenting to keep the clutch safe from predators. However no ground nesting bird can tolerate its nest and nesting habitat being destroyed under the blades of a mower. By making sure we leave areas of the Sanctuary to grow wild in the sensitive breeding months, we are giving our skylarks the best chance possible of successfully raising chicks, and providing the Sanctuary with the most uplifting and melodic background noise you could hope for!