Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Woodlark - Countdown - 20 Days to Go!

After several species with no song to speak of today's bird in complete contrast is the Woodlark.  The Skylark has attracted the attention of several poets, such as Shelley and George Meredith, and is almost universally acclaimed by the community at large, but if you listen to its song carefully it is full of harsh notes.  The Skylark used to be found singing in large numbers over virtually every open wide space, so its song was familiar to a large proportion of the population.  It has declined drastically in the last 3 decades, but it is still a very familiar bird. The Woodlark by contrast used to be confined to the extreme south and east of England, but in recent decades because of the planting of conifer plantations and the restoration of adjacent lowland heaths it has increased its range to such an extent that there is a healthy breeding population in many parts of Yorkshire.  It has recently been announced that the Woodlark has been transferred from the red list to amber.
There are several venues next term where we may hear the beautiful song of the woodlark, and possibly even observe this attractive bird. Unlike the familiar Sylark song, the Woodlarks consists of a series of beautiful liquid notes made up of several completely different phrases, which includes the simple phrase loo-loo, which accounts for the French name for the bird: Lulu, and the scientific name: alula. 
Woodlark, male (left) & female (right)
 Pair in the air
The Skylark is famous for its song flight when it can fly so high it often disappears from view.  In contrast, the Woodlark usually flies just above tree height in large undulating circles. Like a Skylark, a Woodlark's wings have a large surface area, and it flaps these constantly, but its silhouette is of a bird with a much shorter tail, which gives it an almost bat-like quality in flight. 
Flying Woodlark - note surface area of wing
 Skylark in Flight (c) 2015 Tony Robinson - note longer tail
 Woodlark - note pale supercilium meeting at the back of head
The Woodlark has a pale eyebrow above each eye which meet at the back of the head, which is something not shared with the Skylark.  The Woodlark also has a distinctive marking on the edge of its wing, which is another diagnostic feature, although we may not get close enough to observe this.  Like a Skylark, a Woodlark can raise its crest, but it probably does this less often than a Skylark. 
Singing from the ground
 Skylark - note raised crest

Hopefully, this is a bird we will hear after mid-February both this term, and after Easter. Over the past decade introducing Woodlarks to students has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the course, as they marvel at the beauty of the song and the subtle details of the plumage, and the enormous claws on its feet!

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