The rising flight and song of the skylark is one of the most thrilling wildlife displays you can hope to see in the countryside around Sudbury.
Just beyond the Valley Walk in the fields towards Borley and Bulmer, I have watched and heard these special songsters several times in recent weeks. You often hear a skylark before you see one, its high-pitched medley of chirps, chirrups and trills fill the landscape like musical mist.
They are farmland birds, smaller than a thrush, at home in open spaces and as they have no trees to perch in and sing from, skylarks must take to the skies to fully broadcast their message. Like most birdsong, the skylark is telling other male larks to steer clear of his territory and signalling to females that he is a lark worthy of a second look.
While the song of the skylark is undoubtedly beautiful, its song flight is stunningly spectacular. As it rises vertically, its wings flap furiously, the song seemingly becoming higher pitched, the more it climbs. On the skylark goes with this rising hover until it disappears out of eyesight. Experts say it can reach a height of 300 metres.
The viewer squints at the sky, trying to keep sight of the disappearing dot until all that remains is its glorious surround sound music, which can last for several minutes. Then suddenly, the lark re-appears, its wings still as it allows itself to drop like a parachute drifting lower and lower until it is within about 30 feet of the ground. Oftentimes, at this point it will pull in its wings and plunge dramatically to the ground like a stone towards its nest or feeding ground
It is wonderful stuff and a spectacle that entrances me more each time I experience it; an encounter guaranteed to brighten up any late winter walk however bleak the weather or the prospect of going home to watch The Repair Shop before bed and work the next day.
It is no wonder, then, that great poets down the ages have tried to capture the essence of this experience with their words. Shelley said the skylark ‘showers a rain of melody’ while Wordsworth referred to it as an ‘ethereal minstrel’. Ted Hughes looked up and saw a bird whose heart was ‘drumming like a motor’ as its feathers thrashed ‘up through the nothing’.
I mention poetry, not just because World Poetry Day takes place this month (March 21st) but also because I feel there is a strong link between poetry and an appreciation of nature.
Maybe it is because I write about wildlife but whenever I am out and about and I tune into nature, I find myself searching for a word or phrase to explain what I have seen or the sensations I am experiencing. I recommend it as a way of immersing yourself in nature. The Japanese, of course, have a word for it – a ginkgo walk – named after an ancient tree species, it is a meditative walk in nature that people use to spark inspiration for a short poem called a haiku.
The skylark has had a huge cultural impact down the ages and some artists have even turned to music to express “the sweet silver song of a lark” (Gerry and the Pacemakers). Best known is the violin masterpiece The Lark Ascending composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams more than a century ago and perennially voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music by listeners of Classic FM.
Some see the artistic approach to nature as being in direct opposition to the scientific view, but I think the botanical and beautiful can complement each other. You can use biology, botany and zoology to explain the endlessly fascinating behaviour of animals and plants, or how the skylark uses its doubled-fluted voice box, called a syrinx, to produce its songs, but you need prose and poetry to get across how they make you feel.
Fans of nature writing will know that the modern trend is away from the matter-of-fact guidebooks of yesteryear and towards descriptions where the author is centre stage, communicating their emotional response to nature.
The early nineteenth century East Anglian ‘peasant’ poet John Clare is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of new nature writing due to the intensely personal reactions to nature he laid out in his work. For Clare, who suffered with mental health issues, watching a skylark in flight “As free from danger as the heavens are free/ From pain and toil” lifted the spirits and offered a brief respite from his troubles.
At a time like now, we should listen to the poets and appreciate what nature has to offer and do all we can to protect it.
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity