Take on Nature: The skylark - 'He wings the spiral stair...'

Although widespread throughout Ireland, Skylark populations are declining.
Stephen Colton

WHEN monitoring the hen harriers I wrote of some weeks ago from around Donegal's Lough Derg, I also encountered many passerines typical of the heather moorland and rough pastures which dominate that landscape.

Most numerous was the meadow pipit, with its brownish streaky appearance and rising flight. Riabhóg Mhóna or bog pipit, one of the harrier's favourite prey, is a common foster parent for cuckoo chicks, so no surprise that all three species occupy this habitat.

There as well, the stonechat, so named because its chatterings resemble the sound of stones being tapped together, reflected in its Irish name Cailín cloch, stone chatterer.

Both male and female exhibit brown backs, rusty tinges to their chests and a white collar on the side of their necks. The male's black head is much darker and noticeable than the female's duller brown crown.

The third species observed in this open country was the wheatear, a summer migrant from Africa, the male sporting a broad black cheek stripe while sharing a beige breast and striking white rump with the female. The distinctive white backside gives rise to the bird's oft used folk name 'white arse'.

Last of the quartet present was the skylark, or 'fuiseog' as Gaeilge, famed for its soaring flight song and celebrated in literature, music, and lore. A heavily streaked brown bird, Alauda arvensis, which feeds mainly on seeds and invertebrates, is larger than the similar meadow pipit and wears a noticeable crest.

It is however, the bird's unmistakable singing while climbing skyward which catches the eye, a performance often lasting 10 or 15 minutes, and lauded by many writers including English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley who wrote: "Higher still and higher/From the earth thou springest... /And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest' in To a Skylark.

My brush with the skylark saw the bird spiral effortlessly, ushering its continuous notes, hovering at a great height before parachuting slowly to the vegetation below, probably close to its ground nest, a shallow cup of grasses lined with finer materials to cradle the four or so eggs. Although widespread throughout Ireland, populations are declining.

Symbolising joy, optimism, and hope, the skylark has deep cultural connections with Ireland, stretching back to the time of Fionn Mac Cumhaill who in a poem wrote of "The lark singing out his clear tidings".

Ever since, the bird has found its way onto pages of numerous musical and poetry compositions. The renowned 19th century Belfast-born poet, Samuel Ferguson, penned his famous The Lark in the Clear Air to accompany a plaintive melody his wife Mary Catherine had heard, thought to have its origins in an older air put to Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the poem written by Tipperary's William Heffernan around the turn of the 18th century. The haunting song and tune continue to be performed by a host of musicians and artists.

The skylark features too in an old English folk song the Lark in the Morning presented by many famous Irish singers over the decades such as Paddy Tunney and the Dubliners, the title also given to the popular Irish jig sometimes called An Fuiseog air Maidin.

Another acclaimed musical piece focusing attention on the bird is The Lark Ascending, a classical arrangement inspired by the poem of the same name (from which my title words come) written by George Meredith who describes how the beauty of the skylark's "starry voice ascending spreads/Awakening, as it waxes thin/ The best in us to him akin".

Long may native birds like the skylark continue to soar and inspire those who work in the creative arts.

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