Our regular series of blogs exploring collective nouns returns after a short break with a look at one of our most familiar birds. I say familiar, but most people probably haven't had good close views of skylarks. You will, however, almost certainly be familiar with the beautiful, lyrical song filling the skies with music as they sing from high above.
Visually, skylarks are perfect examples of LBJs, or little brown jobs as they are known by many birdwatchers. They are actually relatively large for LBJs, being similar in size to a starling and noticeably chunkier than the similarly plumaged pipits. They are streaked brown, with a white belly, white outer tail feathers and a pale eyebrow (supercilium), plus a short crest that is often held erect when the birds are on the ground.
Skylark by Jon Evans
More often than not, however, all you see of the skylark is small bird on fluttery wings ascending slowly into the sky as it sings until it eventually such a height that it becomes little more than a speck in the sky. It's this behaviour that has been celebrated for centuries in literature, art and music, perhaps most famously in phrases such "up with the lark" and Ralph Vaughan Williams' song and poem The Lark Ascending. This also easily explains three of the collective nouns for larks: an ascension of larks, an exaltation of larks, and the very similar an exalting of larks.
Of course, skylarks aren't the only larks found in the UK, or here at Minsmere. The other one that you have a good chance of seeing at Minsmere is the woodlark. This species has a very short tail, giving it a distinctive silhouette in flight. Woodlarks breed on heathland and short acid grassland patchily across southern England. If you walk around Westleton Heath between mid February and mid summer there is a good chance of hearing their characteristic song, "lu-lu-lu-lulu-lu-la," which gives rise to the scientific name, Lullula arborea.
Shore larks are scarce winter visitors, mainly along the east coast, with one or two often found in the dunes at Minsmere, especially in October and March. Other larks, including short-toed and crested larks that breed in central and southern Europe are very rare visitors to the UK in spring or autumn.
There is a further collective noun for larks, and this one has a very different origin. A bevy of larks is a term shared with quails, partridges and swans and this helps to explain the origin of the term. It's a term associated with hunting, because larks were regularly caught for food in the past - and still are in some parts of Europe.
Fortunately we no longer eat larks in the UK, but they are still under threat due to changing land use and the effects of climate change, so don't just pass of the song of skylark as a familiar sound on a country walk, but enjoy it in all it's glory and marvel at the hidden beauty of this popular LBJ!
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