• Sim Elliott

Skylarks: photos & birdsong; poetry & music. Nature and art in troubling times.

Updated: Feb 22, 2021



Click here to hear a field recording of singing Skylarks recorded on 20.02.21 in Ovingdean.


On Saturday (20/01/21) I spent nearly two hours (11.40 to 13.30) observing Skylarks in Sheepcote Valley (northernmost enclosure), East Brighton Golf Courses, and the fields in Ovingdean north of Bulstrode Farm. All of the photos in this post were taken by me on that day. I was transfixed by the Skylarks behaviour, as Skylark after Skylark burst into the sky in explosions of beautiful song. The experience filled me with joy. Like many people, I have turned to nature for resilience; nature provides joyful distraction from these troubling times. (1). The joy of Skylarks can be experienced directly, by observing them, or vicariously, through the works of poets and composers.


The behaviour of Skylarks, which prompts so much joy for many, captured the attention of British Romantic poets. After seeing and hearing Skylarks in Livono, Shelly wrote in 1820:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert, That from heaven, or near it, Pourest thy full heart In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.


Higher still and higher From the earth thou springest Like a cloud of fire; The blue deep thou wingest, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.


(Full poem in appendix)


The unique behaviour of the Skylark's song-flights was captured too in George Meredith's description of the behaviour of Skylarks in his poem The Lark Ascending (1881). Meredith's poem was the inspiration for Ralph Vaughan-Williams' The Lark Ascending, originally for violin and piano, which was reworked for solo violin and orchestra after the First World War.





The flights of the Skylarks are beautifully evoked in the solo violin cadenzas of Vaughan-Williams' music. "Famous as it is, it is difficult today to appreciate how radical The Lark Ascending must have been for England in 1914. Disguised by its easy classification in genre — called a Romance, it falls readily into the familiar Romantic category of tone poem — it is in its style that the work is so fresh as to be startling. With its huge unmeasured paragraphs for solo violin, dangerously free in rhythmic conception, its continual deflection of traditional cadences, and an unabashed pastoralism, it is a work without real precedent. On the other hand, its success is so complete that it is hard not to hear all subsequent English tone poems for violin and orchestra as imitators.


The work’s simplicity belies the masterpiece of economy and expression that it is.Vaughan Williams’ unerring ability to use a violin’s pentatonic roulades high above a lushly and expansively scored orchestra to conjure the image of a lark soaring above and gazing upon the natural and human world is breathtaking." Lyle Chan, Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending, acc.net.au Listening Guide Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending - Listening Guides - ABC Classic accessed 21.02.21




Vaughan-Williams' The Lark Ascending, despite being an evocation of British bucolic tranquillity, was written, as a violin and piano piece as Europe prepared militarily for a world war, and it was revised as a piece for solo violin and orchestra after the tragedy of the First World War (2); "perhaps its strong association with bucolic English landscapes has distanced audiences from the serious themes Vaughan Williams had in mind when he wrote it on the eve of war in 1914. ... It is important the piece doesn't just become a pastoral wallpaper, a pretty reflection on a rural scene," said Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3 and the BBC Proms, ... "There is loss there too and the sense of a difficult time in a country's history. It should not simply be a piece to relax to."" Vanessa Thorpe (27 Apr 2014) How the first world war inspired Britain's favourite piece of classical music. The Observer. How the first world war inspired Britain's favourite piece of classical music | Classical music | The Guardian


Perhaps Roger Wright's injunction that "[the Lark Ascending] should not simply be a piece to relax to" is a reminder that whilst nature, and artistic representations of nature, offer solace, and allow us to cope and develop resilience in troubling times, which is of great important to our mental health, as a society we need, at some point, to understand why great tragedies have occurred (such as World War One, World War Two and the Covid 19 pandemic; "the true number of deaths related to Covid-19 [ in the UK] is likely to be higher than the toll during the Blitz" (3) and seek to prevent them happening again. I would love to turn away from the sociological, psychological and economic consequences of this great tragedy, which will effect the lives of many for years, and wander the fields looking at nature, and read poetry and listen to music endlessly; but these great tragedies also requires deliberative problem-solving and action. But I hope the resilience, and hope provided by nature, such the song and sights of the Skylark, creates the energy that enables us to ensure that great tragedies like covid-19 don't happen again.


I also hope the beauty of Skylarks motivates action to conserve the landscapes that provide the habitats for birds. As unless we act collectively future generations may not be able to enjoy the beauty of Skylarks.


Skylarks are "the standard-bearer of farmland bird decline" (BTO)

Skylark Common Bird Census / Breeding Bird Survey Trend for England, 1966 - 2013 The Common Birds Census showed that the Skylark’s decline began in the late 1970s. Research at the time revealed an intriguing switch from eating seed in winter to eating more green shoots of winter-sown cereals; with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps an early warning of food shortages. A reduction in over-winter seed availability from the loss of over-wintered crop stubbles, plus the use of more efficient herbicides, meant fewer weed seeds were available in winter for seed-eaters like the Skylark. Autumn-sown crops also meant that the vegetation was generally too tall and too dense to allow skylarks to nest later in the season. Given usual rates of nest losses, this meant that they were unable to raise enough chicks to maintain stable populations. Such a role for breeding success in driving population change is unusual among farmland passerines.

Knowledge of Skylark ecology is much better in the breeding season than in winter, chiefly because they are seldom ringed and still more rarely recovered or recaptured, whereas nests are quite easy to find. However, both the breeding success and winter food mechanisms above ultimately involved the shift from spring- to autumn-sown cereal crops, which transformed the landscape in the mid-1970s.

Agri-environment – a solution? The Skylark’s decline led to widespread conservation concern and then to policy measures to allow recovery. To date, however, they have not worked. New management options have been introduced via agri-environment schemes, encouraging farmers to improve habitat quality for species like Skylark. Leaving stubbles unsprayed over winter – so enhancing weed seed availability, providing fallow land in spring for nesting and creating bare patches in crops to allow access for breeding birds are all supported by government funding. So why has the decline continued? We do not yet know for sure, but there could be more than one reason. Firstly, many farmers do not like agri-environment management that interferes with crop production, so most tends to be along field edges – places that Skylarks avoid; fallows and bare patches are unpopular. Secondly, some options have not had the intended effects, perhaps concentrating birds and encouraging predators or diseases. Some recent changes in agri-environment schemes may not have taken effect yet, but a culture-shift amongst farmers about what makes “good farming” may be needed, along with more research into the reasons why some management is failing, without which fewer and fewer people will see and hear this icon of the British countryside in the future." Skylark | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology



Meredith evokes the Skylarks energetic ascents in his short lines of poetry; his rhyming tetrameter couplets, without stanza breaks, articulates the burst of energy in Skylarks flights:


He rises and begins to round,

He drops the silver chain of sound

Of many links without a break,

In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,

All intervolv’d and spreading wide,

Like water-dimples down a tide

Where ripple ripple overcurls

And eddy into eddy whirls;

A press of hurried notes that run

So fleet they scarce are more than one,

Yet changingly the trills repeat

And linger ringing while they fleet,

Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear

To her beyond the handmaid ear,


(Full poem in appendix)


Meredith emphasises the joy which hearing and seeing Skylarks evokes: the "starry voice ascending" awakens "the best in us to him akin", although, Meredith warns, that the Skylark will bring succour to our hearts "as long as you crave nothing but the song".





Perhaps it is also important to remember that whilst Skylarks' songs are beautiful, they do not burst into song primarily to bring joy to humans. The skylarks' sudden ascents into the sky in bursts of song - the sights and sounds that brought joy to me yesterday, and in the past brought joy to Shelley, Meredith, and perhaps Vaughan-Williams - have a biological function rooted in evolution: "Males are highly territorial, using long song flights at high altitude to broadcast to rivals and potential mates because the open landscapes they prefer are devoid of high perches. The stamina required to sustain long song flights has led to song flight length being used as an “honest signal” of male quality by females, allowing male Skylarks to advertise themselves without bright plumage, so they have kept the cryptic, brown and streaked coloration that affords them protection from predators on the ground." Skylark | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology


To sing they need a landscape that conserves a healthy population of Skylarks,



Click here to hear anothother field recording of Skylarks singing on 20.01.21 in Ovingdean



The full texts of The Lark Ascending by George Meredith (1881) and To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1820)


The Lark Ascending, George Meredith 1881

He rises and begins to round,

He drops the silver chain of sound

Of many links without a break,

In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,

All intervolv’d and spreading wide,

Like water-dimples down a tide

Where ripple ripple overcurls

And eddy into eddy whirls;

A press of hurried notes that run

So fleet they scarce are more than one,

Yet changingly the trills repeat

And linger ringing while they fleet,

Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear

To her beyond the handmaid ear,

Who sits beside our inner springs,

Too often dry for this he brings,

Which seems the very jet of earth

At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,

As up he wings the spiral stair,

A song of light, and pierces air

With fountain ardor, fountain play,

To reach the shining tops of day,

And drink in everything discern’d

An ecstasy to music turn’d,

Impell’d by what his happy bill

Disperses; drinking, showering still,

Unthinking save that he may give

His voice the outlet, there to live

Renew’d in endless notes of glee,

So thirsty of his voice is he,

For all to hear and all to know

That he is joy, awake, aglow,

The tumult of the heart to hear

Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,

And know the pleasure sprinkled bright

By simple singing of delight,

Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,

Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d

Without a break, without a fall,

Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,

Perennial, quavering up the chord

Like myriad dews of sunny sward

That trembling into fulness shine,

And sparkle dropping argentine;

Such wooing as the ear receives

From zephyr caught in choric leaves

Of aspens when their chattering net

Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;

And such the water-spirit’s chime

On mountain heights in morning’s prime,

Too freshly sweet to seem excess,

Too animate to need a stress;

But wider over many heads

The starry voice ascending spreads,

Awakening, as it waxes thin,

The best in us to him akin;

And every face to watch him rais’d,

Puts on the light of children prais’d,

So rich our human pleasure ripes

When sweetness on sincereness pipes,

Though nought be promis’d from the seas,

But only a soft-ruffling breeze

Sweep glittering on a still content,

Serenity in ravishment.


For singing till his heaven fills,

’T is love of earth that he instils,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup,

And he the wine which overflows

To lift us with him as he goes:

The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine

He is, the hills, the human line,

The meadows green, the fallows brown,

The dreams of labor in the town;

He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;

The wedding song of sun and rains

He is, the dance of children, thanks

Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,

And eye of violets while they breathe;

All these the circling song will wreathe,

And you shall hear the herb and tree,

The better heart of men shall see,

Shall feel celestially, as long

As you crave nothing save the song.

Was never voice of ours could say

Our inmost in the sweetest way,

Like yonder voice aloft, and link

All hearers in the song they drink:

Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,

Our passion is too full in flood,

We want the key of his wild note

Of truthful in a tuneful throat,

The song seraphically free

Of taint of personality,

So pure that it salutes the suns

The voice of one for millions,

In whom the millions rejoice

For giving their one spirit voice.


Yet men have we, whom we revere,

Now names, and men still housing here,

Whose lives, by many a battle-dint

Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,

Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet

For song our highest heaven to greet:

Whom heavenly singing gives us new,

Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,

From firmest base to farthest leap,

Because their love of Earth is deep,

And they are warriors in accord

With life to serve and pass reward,

So touching purest and so heard

In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;

Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,

Through self-forgetfulness divine,

In them, that song aloft maintains,

To fill the sky and thrill the plains

With showerings drawn from human stores,

As he to silence nearer soars,

Extends the world at wings and dome,

More spacious making more our home,

Till lost on his aërial rings

In light, and then the fancy sings.



To a Skylark, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820



Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert, That from Heaven, or near it, Pourest thy full heart In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. Higher still and higher From the earth thou springest Like a cloud of fire; The blue deep thou wingest, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. In the golden lightning Of the sunken sun, O'er which clouds are bright'ning, Thou dost float and run; Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun. The pale purple even Melts around thy flight; Like a star of Heaven, In the broad day-light Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight, Keen as are the arrows Of that silver sphere, Whose intense lamp narrows In the white dawn clear Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there. All the earth and air With thy voice is loud, As, when night is bare, From one lonely cloud The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow'd. What thou art we know not; What is most like thee? From rainbow clouds there flow not Drops so bright to see As from thy presence showers a rain of melody. Like a Poet hidden In the light of thought, Singing hymns unbidden, Till the world is wrought To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not: Like a high-born maiden In a palace-tower, Soothing her love-laden Soul in secret hour With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower: Like a glow-worm golden In a dell of dew, Scattering unbeholden Its aëreal hue Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view: Like a rose embower'd In its own green leaves, By warm winds deflower'd, Till the scent it gives Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves: Sound of vernal showers On the twinkling grass, Rain-awaken'd flowers, All that ever was Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass. Teach us, Sprite or Bird, What sweet thoughts are thine: I have never heard Praise of love or wine That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine. Chorus Hymeneal, Or triumphal chant, Match'd with thine would be all But an empty vaunt, A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want. What objects are the fountains Of thy happy strain? What fields, or waves, or mountains? What shapes of sky or plain? What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain? With thy clear keen joyance Languor cannot be: Shadow of annoyance Never came near thee: Thou lovest: but ne'er knew love's sad satiety. Waking or asleep, Thou of death must deem Things more true and deep Than we mortals dream, Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream? We look before and after, And pine for what is not: Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught; Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Yet if we could scorn Hate, and pride, and fear; If we were things born Not to shed a tear, I know not how thy joy we ever should come near. Better than all measures Of delightful sound, Better than all treasures That in books are found, Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground! Teach me half the gladness That thy brain must know, Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow The world should listen then, as I am listening now.



Notes:


(1) Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2010). Self-Compassion, Stress, and Coping. Social and personality psychology compass, 4(2), 107–118


(2) Over 700,000 soldiers were killed in WWi, around 11.5% of those mobilised. Viewpoint: 10 big myths about World War One debunked - BBC News, accessed 21.02.21


(3) More people have probably been killed by coronavirus than were killed during the Blitz - Full Fact, accessed 21.01.21


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