NATURE NOTES - The skylark ascending

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A LOVELY spring day so it was off to the moors to see what was about.

It was definitely more like early May than late February and it had got some of the birds confused too!

It was so nice to see and hear good numbers of skylarks – hanging in the sky singing their little hearts out.

I suppose they are one of the birds that are the very voice of spring.

They have a beautiful song that radiates through the air as the bird itself hangs suspended somewhere overhead.

This aerial, territorial display can last up to five minutes while the male reaches the pinnacle of its flight before slowly descending.

Skylark numbers have declined by more than 50% over the last quarter of a century, as a result of increased intensive farming methods.

We were hoping to see and hear red grouse but had no luck in finding any as they can be really secretive – especially when they are deep in the heather!

Sadly red grouse populations, similar to the skylark, are in decline due to the loss of their natural, heathland habitats: over the last 50 years up to 40% of heather moorland has been lost to commercial forestry and overgrazing.

Our next find was an absolute joy.

We had ventured up to the moors several times since Christmas looking for these birds but had never found them – on one of our trips Tanith was just about blown off her feet with the 100mph gusts that were hitting Winter Hill during the January storms.

Anyway we finally caught up with the snow buntings and spent a good half hour watching them through the telescope and our bins. Not hard to guess what colour they mostly are is it.

They have been around for a few months but will pretty soon be leaving for their breeding grounds high in the Arctic with the males returning first when the temps can still drop to as low as -30°C and snow still covering most of the ground.

Being that bit more savvy the female does not return until four to six weeks later when the temps have raised somewhat.

They nest deep in cracks or other cavities in rocks and as you’d expect these are not the warmest of nest sites so they construct a nest with a nice thick insulating lining of fur and feathers which helps keep the eggs and nestlings warm. With these freezing temps the female sits tight on the nest for most of the incubation period.

The male feeds her while she is incubating so that she does not need to leave the nest very often.

There are small isolated populations of snow buntings on a few high mountain tops south of the Arctic region, including the Cairngorms in central Scotland where I first saw them many years ago and males in full summer plumage are definitely a sight for sore eyes.