Country diary: larks ascending, attacking and defending

Aberlady Bay, East Lothian: Wing to wing and claw to claw, two males leap upward together from the yellowish grass in a furious double helix

The sky over the heath, salt-rinsed, blustery and a broken blue-grey, is a battleground. The skylarks are staking out their spring territories. Towering, poet-pleasing songflights are a part of that; so, too, are bouts of close combat, wing to wing and claw to claw, two males leaping upward together from the yellowish grass in a furious double helix, bickering shrilly, jousting as they rise. The air teems with them.

Aberlady Bay, a wide and windswept delta on Scotland’s south-east coast, was the first location to be recognised as a local nature reserve under section 21 of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. Much of it is seawater-steeped flats, the ocean edge at low tide a far-off frill of cream and blue, the shining mud busy with feeding shelduck and oystercatcher.

Teal potter in the brackish tidal pools at the inlandmost point of the bay, and wigeon browse the close-growing grass. A curlew and two little egrets probe the edges of a shallow stream. A timber walkway leads into the heathland; beyond that, a seawall of tall dunes rises from the marram grass.

A path leading through the sea buckthorn at Aberlady Bay
A path leading through the sea buckthorn at Aberlady Bay. Photograph: Sally Anderson/Alamy

I’m aware as I walk the winding paths through this flat country that I present an obvious silhouette. Everything is wary (except the skylarks, spring-mad, drunk on berserker hormones – and a solitary male blackbird, who sings and sings somewhere in the middle of a thicket of sea buckthorn (a ubiquitous shrub with pale-orange berries known locally as the baked-bean bush). Browsing roe deer keep their distance. Linnet gangs skip ahead, from one stooped hawthorn to the next.

Finally I stand at the top of the tallest dune, a little drunk on sea-wind and sleeplessness and sudden altitude: the vast beach bends away westward beneath me, patrolled, as far as I can see, only by another curlew, its bill thick with wet sand.

When I turn back a skylark starts up from the heath below, rising fitfully to my elevated eye level, singing as it rises, and then rising higher and higher still – it doesn’t quite vanish into the grey-blue, but remains in sight as a tiny punctuation point against the clouds, a quavering asterisk, shivering with song.


Richard Smyth

The GuardianTramp

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