The sky is dark and brooding, almost autumnal in nature, and the strength of the wind makes me feel that I may have chanced my luck in coming out this morning. The weather forecast predicted that the overnight rain would have pushed through soon after first light and I’m rather hoping that the scatter of raindrops on the car windscreen are the end, not the beginning, of a belt of showers.
The moody sky suits the open landscape of these Surrey heaths; their open vistas are spared the horizon-shortening banks of conifers that spoil so much of my native Breckland, hemming me in and compartmentalising so much of the landscape. Many of the Surrey heathlands have been shaped by the military and have only recently been taken on as nature reserves. They remain open; a mixture of sandy soils sloping down to wetter ground, abundant pools and (in summer) a multitude of dragonflies and damp-loving plants. The cloud and wind combine to deliver a chill and I am glad to be on the move, striding across the boardwalk towards the higher ground ahead. Despite the weather there are a few birds singing, the melancholy fluty whistle of Curlew, the ever-present Wren and a distant snatch of Woodlark. It is the Woodlarks that I have come to see, even though they are a familiar bird at home in Norfolk. Here, on Thursley Common, they are doing well, with a good number of breeding territories spread across the ground.
I can see that the bank of cloud is slipping away to the southeast and the brightening sky brings much-needed warmth, stirring not only my spirits but prompting other birds to start singing. Finding some higher ground I stand in the sunshine and watch one of the Woodlarks perched, as they so often do, in a suitable tree. Singing from a Silver Birch, one of many that seem to have lost their tops, the Woodlark is beautifully lit in the spring sunshine and it fills the telescope’s field of view. Smaller than a Skylark, this species is noticeably short-tailed and has a strongly patterned head. In addition to this, there is the diagnostic ‘pale-dark-pale’ panel on the edge of the closed wing.
I’m soon watching other individuals, some singing and others foraging on the ground amongst the heather. The common was damaged by fire two summers ago and many of the trees remain blackened. Woodlark numbers have increased over recent years, no doubt contributing to the numbers on show this morning. While I see them almost daily in Norfolk at this time of the year, I never see them in these numbers, nor in such striking surroundings. It was worth chancing my luck with the weather.