I headed back to Acres Down to see if I could sketch the pair of Woodlark I had seen in the same area of the heath on several occasions. I headed out there early so that I could also try and see the Honey Buzzard which Dad and Martin had seen on Monday. I was first in the car park at around 6:30am and before looking for the Woodlark I wandered down the forest track to see if I could hear the Wood Warbler which had been reported near the first clearing, there was no sign.
One of the first birds I saw out on the open heath was a male Woodlark singing from a small isolated group of trees. Watching singing birds just afer sunrise when there is no one else around is a real privilege, especially when the songster is as enchanting as the Woodlark. It wasn’t a full out song, more like quiet snatches of sub song but he did stay on the top of the tree for a good few minutes adjusting his position ever so often. The scientific name ‘lullula’ refers to their beautiful descending yodelling fluty song. I think the song was fairly subdued as this male already had a partner nearby.
I set the scope up and started sketching. The white supercilium met at the nape and the crest was raised into a vaguely triangular shape. The ear coverts were slightly gingery, the tail was short and the black and white primary coverts and alula pattern was evident.
Eventually he flew down to the ground and then I noticed that the female was already down there. She had a bill full of insects and the male began to forage with her. Both birds took their insects to what I imagine was the nest site but it was obscured by heather from my angle. Woodlark nests are often closer to the song post tree than the height of the tree. The nest is a deep cup on the ground and usually faces north-east or a similar angle to avoid direct sun.
I had seen what was probably the same male in a family party of five Woodlark in this area just eight days previously and so this was probably a second brood. After the first brood has fledged the female gets on with laying and incubating the second clutch leaving the male to keep an eye on the already fledged young, who were probably close by. Only the female incubates and this second nest will be a new build and probably close to the first.
Woodlark are almost unique in that the five discreet populations in the UK all have slightly different habitat requirements, however, they all need trees as lookouts and song posts and areas of bare ground and short vegetation for foraging. In the New Forest this is provided by heathland and the bare ground and short vegetation is maintained by the grazing ponies. Controlled fires also allow habitat regeneration.
Although grazing is essential, trampling must be a problem for Woodlarks as there were ponies nearby and I know that lots of dog owners at Acres Down allow their dogs to run off lead away from the tracks. Having said that, predation is actually the commonest cause of failure of Woodlark nests with Foxes and Crows the leading culprits.
The mild weather in the south and south west means that Woodlark don’t disperse far for the winter although little is known about these precise movements. Adults often return to the same areas to breed but young birds disperse further afield.
After a relaxing hour with the Woodlarks I walked up to the raptor viewpoint, my target was Honey Buzzard. I was the only person there which was surprising given the perfect conditions. Being the only observer makes it harder to cover such a huge area although I managed to see most things but not a Honey Buzzard! There were two Red Kites, two Goshawks, lots of Buzzards, two Ravens and a Hobby but I still left disappointed, slightly sunburnt but very happy with my earlier Woodlark encounter.