Heard before they’re seen, skylarks soar back over Roundshaw

Bursting into life: spring is arriving, and quickly, hastened in by the unseasonably warm February weather. Which loyal reader can identify this tree blossom?

NATURE NOTES/FEB 2022: Our year-long photostory continues with some welcome arrivals and the first signs of spring. PLUS: Join us for a gentle ramble next month

Rites of spring: the wonder of a skylark’s song never diminishes

They’re back.

I saw my first skylark of 2022 a week earlier. When I say that I saw it, I heard it before I saw it. It was a distinctive little chirp coming from low down by the ground to my right as it flew across in front of me. I’d missed that sound these past few months.

With these small elusive birds, hearing them is often the first signal, long before you manage to steal a glance.

This first bird flew low, popped up and over the barbed wire paddock fencing, and landed 30 feet away from me, just to the side of one of the tussocks in that part of the cattle paddocks on Roundshaw Downs. Typically – of me and my slowness to get my camera to hand and focused, not typically of the bird – it had already hopped off and out of sight before I could record this grand event.

But they are so small – just 6in long from beak to tail – and surprisingly well camouflaged, that any picture I might have managed to snap will have just shown a lot of bumps and grass and not much in the way of a red-list endangered bird which, by most accounts, is thriving on this magnificent nature reserve on Croydon’s doorstep.

On this first sighting, there was no extravagant aerial display for which skylarks are rightly celebrated.

That first song of the skylark for me came this week, on Tuesday, February 8 to be exact, just after 1pm.

The furtive fox: there’s little that seems to dissuade them from strolling around their manor

I like these larks. They are not the sort of larks you have to be “up with the lark” to see.

And even with all the noise of the A23 Purley Way barely 200 yards away, it is the constant song of a steepling skylark that grabs your attention.

This first soaring flight was not one of the more spectacular ones: just (yes, “just”) 50 feet off the ground, seemingly hovering as it sent out its distinctive tune. They will be doing that from now until the height of summer, mid-July, the end of their nesting season. Song flights of up to an hour have been recorded, and the RSPB reckon the birds can reach 1,000 feet before descending – all in their effort to indicate that there, somewhere in the scrubby chalk grass tussocks, in a small hollow, is their nest.

So it was that on this February lunchtime I was rapt, lost in the wonder of it, as this little bird, barely bigger than a sparrow, soared high above this south London field, all the time issuing its lung-bursting song, until gently, gradually, he lowered himself down and his chirpy song came to an end as he landed.

Skylarks have been an integral part of the English landscape for centuries, its song inspiring poets ranging from Chaucer to Blake to Shelley, and a few musicians, too, such as Vaughan Williams.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology, the birds thrived when farming practices suited its needs, clearing areas of pasture where the crops were never too tall. Today, the RSPB asks arable farmers to leave a clearing in each of their wheat and oats fields, a safe space away from the combine harvesters for the larks to nest. The growth of intensive farming practices in the 1960s, with grass being harvested in mid-summer for winter feed and silage, was disastrous for the skylark.

Colourburst: a week ago, the only colourful thing to observe was vivid lichen on the hawthorn twigs

That’s why the conservation project at Roundshaw is so important to help the skylarks of south London find somewhere that they can call home.

According to the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers, who do so much of the ecology work at Roundshaw, “The skylark is a red list bird, that is, it is a bird of conservation concern due to the dramatic decline in its population in Britain. The major cause for this is the lack of suitable places for it to nest, as many farms now don’t have rough areas in fields…

“At Roundshaw Downs, thanks to the sensitive management of the site, we have several breeding pairs of skylark, as well as breeding meadow pipit. Both of these birds have fantastic song flights to display to competitors and to show off to females.”

That’s not to say I am not concerned about our Roundshaw skylarks. Oh, the crows and magpies are there, just as they always are, ready to take advantage of the ground-nesters for an easy meal of an egg or a chick.

But it’s just so bloody early in the year.

That date when I spotted my first skylark display of the year? This year’s February 8 is a full week earlier than what I observed in 2020 and 2021. And yes, this is not David Attenborough-rigorous zoology, just the recollections of a stumbling individual rambler at one site over the course of just a couple of years. But that seems like a significant shift.

As previously discussed, we’ve had no real winter this year, and spring is already bursting out all over. There is surely only one thing worse for red list endangered skylarks than a greedy magpie, and that will be a frosty cold snap when they have laid their first clutch of eggs.

Bare and dormant: our walk takes us through this hawthorn hedgerow which this week looked dormant

After a desperately dry January – not that kind of dry January – with less than one-third of the usual monthly rainfall (according to the Met Office), we started February slipping and sliding around the Paddock’s muddy pathways. But Roundshaw is chalk grassland, and within three or four days, it had drained to make it easy walking once again.

One of the things I enjoy about the place is the variety of habitats. Because as well as the open meadows for the ever-changing wildflowers, there’s also fringes of woodland and copse. A fox crossed my path as bold as day in the woods yesterday, looking healthily furtive.

And I spotted a jay picking over at something outside the entrance to the fox’s den, which suggests to me food that might have been dropped on the way in, which further suggests to me that it won’t be too long before the cubs are introduced to the big wide world.

Spring is coming at us in a helluva rush. Gardeners and ramblers have been relating how they have seen snowdrops and crocuses on their travels. The gorse up on the top of Croham Hurst has had its acid yellow flowers in bloom since Christmas.

Here on and around the Downs, there’s a few daffs in the woods which, in the space of a week, have come into bud. A woodpecker can be heard preparing its home for the new season, the rat-tat-tat-rattle echoing louder between the leaf-less trees.

Hedgerows which a week ago were bare, seemingly dormant, are bursting into blossom. I arrive at the Downs after parking up on a cul de sac off Plough Lane, and through the entrance and turning right there is a solitary tree as you approach the now empty cattle enclosures.

Poised to transform: a week ago, there was no sign of the snow-white blossom on this tree at all

Even from a modest distance, it appears to just be all twigs and nothing much else. But get up close and you can see how just in the space of a few days, it has burst into a vivid white blossom, full of expectancy for the season ahead.

Now I have a confession to make: I have no idea what kind of tree this is.

Can you help?

Free guided walk – Mar 5

On Saturday, March 5, Inside Croydon will be holding its first guided walk for almost three years, the first, we hope, of a series at Roundshaw to chart the changing seasons at this remarkable nature reserve.

Because of covid, numbers will be strictly limited.

Subscribers to Inside Croydon will get preferential places. To sign up as an iC patron, for less than a fiver per month, click here.

On the day we will be meeting at a designated point at 11am for a walk that should take about 90minutes. Hopefully, there will be amateur botanists and expert birdwatchers among those taking part to help identify the flora and fauna.

This is going to be a covid cautious event: Only those who have been fully vaccinated will be welcome to join us, and we also insist that you should have had a covid-negative lateral flow test in the 24 hours before the walk. Being in the great outdoors and with some sensible social distancing, we hope to mitigate the risks of staging some kind of super spreader event.

And all the usual pieces of advice about wearing appropriate clothing and footwear for a rough old ramble also apply.

  • To apply for a place on this nature walk, email inside.croydon@btinternet.com, with the words “March ramble” in the subject field. Your name and a daytime contact number are required, and iC will reply to you directly once we have a full complement.
  • Closing date for applications is Monday, February 21.

Previous Nature Notes: Up on the Downs, watching for the missing signs of winter

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Heard before they’re seen, skylarks soar back over Roundshaw

  1. Moira O'Donnell says:

    Cherry Plum maybe?

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