Wanstead Flats Skylark survey, 2013
Wanstead Flats probably has one of the largest breeding Skylark population in the London area, possibly within the M25 motorway. Their song during the spring and summer months is a familiar accompaniment to those visitors to the Flats who give themselves time to listen; local dog walkers may well be aware of them, though the weekend football players less so!
In fact so familiar have the Skylarks been to me since I moved adjacent to Wanstead Flats in the 1960's that I perhaps hadn't borne in mind until more recent years just what a wonder it is for them to live here. Considering the amount of noise, light, dogs, people and other disturbances that the Flats are prone to, the Skylarks persist.
For the last few years local naturalist Tim Harris - together with a number of other naturalists and birders - has been trying to ascertain just how many Skylark territories there may be on the Flats. A few years ago we encouraged the City of London Corporation in their role as Conservators of Epping Forest to erect notice-boards advising people of the presence of Skylarks and particularly asking dog-owners to try not to let their dogs roam free over the areas that may provide nesting-sites for the birds.
The first displaying male was singing on 2nd February this year. In early March, Tim, with the help of a few others, erected about 20 supplementary temporary notices. Dog-walkers were soon seen to be reading these, and hopefully some will take heed and try to keep their dogs away. As has been said, considering that the area is so disturbed, the larks do remarkably well, but the last two seasons have seen an apparent decline in breeding numbers so everything that we can do to try to stop this is important.
To ascertain this year's population, Tim has proposed surveys take place at least – if possible – each week. Not everyone can make such commitment, so provisions were made to hand out maps and survey sheets at a preliminary survey on 16th March so that people might be able to pop over for an hour or so when they have some time. That way we could start to build up an accurate picture of how many pairs there are. Later in the season we could look for family parties and try to estimate the breeding successes of our birds.
So, on Saturday 16 March, a group of six people assembled at the car park on Centre Road. The day was hardly an ideal one for such a survey. Thoughts of a spring walk across the Flats listening to the gentle sound of the lark became a reality of cold strong winds with a deal of rain. However, the larks were singing, and we managed to positively identify three displaying males, and eight or possibly nine birds in all. In addition, at least six Meadow Pipits were seen at one time and even some of these small birds were attempting display flights in the strong winds. Meadow Pipits are another important element of Wanstead Flats, their melancholy little song less obvious to many people than that of the Skylark but evocative of moors, mountains and wide open spaces.
Our introduction to the surveying process completed, and timely-so for the rain was beating down even harder, we all repaired to the more convivial surroundings, on such a day, of the Gatehouse Pantry in the City of London Cemetery, where tea, coffee, hot chocolate and a variety of warming foodstuffs were enjoyed by all.
A video about the Skylarks of Wanstead Flats is available here.
Tim Harris has an article available on the Wren Group's website here.