Birding in British Columbia
Thinking about visiting Victoria B.C., Canada to see a SKY LARK Alauda arvensis Linnaeus? You may want to do it sooner then later as the populations are declining and there is a chance that they may be wiped out within our lifetime. (*Finding a Skylark)
Under current trends, in a decade or two we may see the Sky Lark entirely extirpated from North America. Sadly, the Washington State San Juan Island Sky Lark population has been extirpated and was last reported from American Camp State Park in 2000.
At the height of their numbers (over 1000 birds --1965), the introduced Sky Lark ranged from South Victoria up to North Saanich with other small groups in the Cowichen Valley and on the Gulf & San Juan Islands. Today, their last remaining strongholds are restricted to the Martindale Valley south of Island View Rd. in East, Central Saanich; the Vantreight Bulb fields in Central Saanich; and the Victoria International Airport in North Saanich
The population decline has been attributed to a number of factors including changing agricultural practices, urban sprawl and loss of farmland/field habitat, and predation from European Starling and Northwestern Crow. American Camp on San Juan Island has suffered from addition predation from fox and that is likely the cause of their extirpation.
The management of the Victoria International Airport Authority has embarked on a cooperative program with the Victoria Natural History Society to improve habitat for SKY LARKS on airport lands lying outside the fenced airport operation zone itself. Mowing of the pasture south of the terminal building and southwest of Willingdon Rd. is currently underway in an effort to create conditions which are attractive to SKYLARKS. The SKY LARK is an introduced species which brings birders to Victoria from all over North America.
HISTORY--The winter of 1998-99 has been relatively mild and the Skylark population seems to be in good shape at the moment.
Sky Lark are ground nesters and will nest in the middle of a hay or plowed field. Today, farmers may cut these fields three to five times a year for silage, increasing a Sky Lark's exposure to disturbance or destruction of a nest clutch. This cutting practice is a change from the former practice of cutting once or twice a year for hay. Predation from European Starling and Northwestern Crow, which scavenge eggs and attack young also plays a part in breeding success and with an increasing Starling population, the Sky Lark's are now burdened to a greater extent.
Within their isolated agricultural pockets, the Sky Larks are very local. In a severe winter year, any one of the remaining groups could be wiped out by disease, starvation or a myriad of perils. Currently, there is little being done to save this species. A lack of local interest in conservation of the introduced Sky Lark, no matter how many bird-tourist dollars it brings in to the city, has made it difficult to save.
Although the population is declining, it is still relatively easy to spot one of these birds (if you know where the look and what to look for.) Sky Larks on the Saanich Peninsula are concentrated in three places: Around the Victoria International Airport, Bulb Fields at Central Saanich Rd, the Martindale Rd., Lochside Rd, Island View Rd., Farm Fields (Martindale Flats)
The best Sky Lark viewing locations zones are coloured in green. Sky Larks have been seen and heard throughout their areas and the yellow zones on the map are better locations to search for them.
Victoria International Airport- Drive around the airport perimeter. Along Mills Rd., pull-over at the highpoints midway along and scope the fields. On Willingdon Rd., stop at the gate at the end of the runway and walk the dirt road to the picnic tables. Finally, stop at the end of Canora Drive and walk along the fence.
Central Saanich Bulb Fields- pull over at the farm reservoir on Wallace Drive or drive along Central Saanich Rd. Scope the fields North, East, and South of the reservoir. Out of town birder's should contact a local guide for farm field access restrictions.
Martindale Valley- Park at the Farmers' Market on Island View Beach Rd. Walk south on Lochside Trail. Out of town birder's should contact a local guide for farm field access restrictions.
Skylarks behave similar to American Pipits and can be found in similar open field and exposed dirt areas. Other species that occur in the same spaces include Savannah Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Common Pheasant, Song Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Killdeer, European Starling, Northern Harrier, Northwestern Crow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewers Blackbird, Glaucous-winged Gull, and Mew Gull. Many waterfowl species over winter in these areas as well.
For those with good hearing, listen for the continuous song of warblers and twitters of a Skylark as it Towers over the field "somewhere." (Cheer cheer cher rup tweedle cheer cheer rup reeup cheer wee cher ...etc.) The song does carry and Sky Larks can sound closer then they really are. When you do hear a Sky Lark in flight, look from 10 degree to 60 degrees above the horizon. Sky Larks are not easy to find in the air as their lighter coloration help blend them into a cloud or blue sky. (A similar colour value as opposed to a Starling or American Pipit which contrasts more sharply with the sky.)
Sky Larks are well camouflaged when on the ground. They may stay put and blend in or move in short spurts also to blend in when they stop. Watching a Sky Lark on the ground requires focus on the bird or else you may lose it.
When flushed, a Sky Lark will give a "Cheerup" call (which sounds like an abbreviation of the towering flight call) and flap'n glide low and away from your location.
In Fall/Winter, the remaining populations tend to flock in the area and it is possible to come across 10-20 birds at a time.
Sky Larks will sing on territory from Late January to Mid July and tend to quiet down as the hot summer weather sets in. Sky Larks may also give shorter duration territorial songs in the Fall/Winter.
A clear day after a light winter snowfall is the best time to see Sky Larks as they will usually be flocked together foraging somewhere in the farm fields.
There are some rules to follow when going into the Skylark's area.
Martindale Flats and Central Saanich Bulb Fields
-- First and foremost, respect the farmer's private property. The Victoria Natural History Society has an understanding with the land owners and because of this, the land owners will tolerate birders on their land. (It is not necessary to knock on doors to seek permission to walk the vehicle tracks however, please identify yourself as a birder to the farm workers whenever possible.)
-- Stay on established farm vehicle tracks and dirt roadways.
-- If a field is fenced, do not go in it.
-- Do not block access roads with your vehicle.
-- Stay clear of the water wheels and sprinklers. Do not step on the pipes.
-- Stay away from farm building.
-- Clean your boots after your visit as an Agricultural Land Quarantine is in effect between Central Saanich and the other areas. (Please don't spread the potato nematodes, no matter how cute you think they are.)
-- Support the farmers by buying their local produce. (plus its a good deal too!)
Victoria International Airport
-- Watch for the Cows in the field off Willingdon Rd.
-- Respect private property.
So, if you want to see and hear this wonderful bird, better plan your trip now.
It's future in North America is uncertain.
Kevin Slagboom -
Victoria BC, Canada
Last Updated: September 2007
BB - Barbara Begg, Naturalist - Barbara has been keeping track of the Sky Lark population for a number of years.