Sweet song of spring skylark

It wasn’t very encouraging to be greeted by a whiteout on the day the clocks went onto summer time. And it wasn’t too good for some of our familiar garden birds such as blackbirds when the ground was frozen so hard that they couldn’t find their invertebrate food at such a crucial time of year. But fortunately it didn’t last too long.

How sweet always is the first skylark song of spring – usually around February. But how good is it to see good numbers of skylarks feeding together. Such is the sight that Willie and Vivien Henderson are justifiably proud of as upwards of 100 (and counting) skylarks are using their tattie rig and corn stubble as well as the surrounding parks.

While some of these birds will be our local breeding birds, others will be migrants on their way back to their respective breeding areas, in this case probably Scandinavia. The recent cold weather may have caused birds to make cold weather movements in a southerly direction to avoid the worst of the weather, with now larger numbers returning back up north simultaneously.

It is wonderful to watch, and listen, to the birds as they feed, mostly unconcerned at nearby vehicles. They characteristically squat on the stubble and can sometimes be quite hard to see until they fly up. But they frequently give their wonderful musical contact call – like a little snatch of that fantastic song. Superficially resemb­ling meadow pipits in plumage, skylarks are altogether larger and “broader in the beam”, with a slightly stouter bill. And they differ from that species by also having a crest, though when this is not raised it can be difficult to detect.

The shore lark on Lambaness (yes, it’s was still there last week) has now also joined up with a group of skylarks, though there are fewer in number at that location.

A few chaffinches are also now creeping into the equation and have been seen across the isles, including four at Cullivoe, five in Out Skerries and smaller numbers elsewhere. In direct contrast to the skylark’s flight call and song, chaffinches always sound very flat to me with their rather hard call and cheap and cheerful song – a bit of a bargain basement effort – as they offer up a cascade of notes with a little flourish at the end. While chaffinches are mostly considered migrant birds, they do occasionally breed and it is possible to hear them singing at times.

Greenfinches are also beginning to move through, again with widespread groups of fewer than ten birds. They are probably also heading back to Scandinavia for the breeding season.

A handful of redwings and fieldfares have been passing through, while a jackdaw was in Out Skerries on the 27th. The tundra bean goose and European white-fronted goose continued to be seen on and off at Norwick, while a dark-bellied brent goose was found on Fetlar on the 27th.

Probably as many as 12 neesicks or harbour porpoise were seen in Burrafirth by Duncan Gray and his family on the morning of the 25th, apparently coming close in to the shore at times. It is encouraging that there have been several good sightings of these marine mammals so far this year.

By the time you read this, the month will have turned and we can look forward to the return of some of our most familiar migrants during April.

Wendy Dickson


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