Student Project: Skylark and Meadow Pipit Surveys

Wenna Grigg

Join placement student Wenna as she talks through her experience working with Dynamic Dunescapes at The Towans in Cornwall

Hello, I’m Wenna and I’m currently completing a post-graduate certificate in Ecological Survey Techniques with the University of Oxford. One aspect of this course is planning and carrying out a field research project of our choosing. Being based in the Cornwall, I have an interest in coastal habitats and wanted to use this opportunity to gather data that would be beneficial to conservation. After meeting the Dynamic Dunescapes Engagement Officer and the Towans Ranger, we decided it would be interesting to gather some baseline data on skylarks, Alauda arvensis, and meadow pipits, Anthus pratensis, on the dunes behind The Towans beach, near Hayle on the North coast of Cornwall.

The left image shows a skylark in flight, the right image shows a skylark standing on grass
Skylark in flight (left) and foraging (right).

Skylarks and meadow pipits have decreasing global populations and are therefore Red Listed (category: Least Concern) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Both species are ground nesting and rely on suitable grassland habitats to hide their nests from predators and to forage for invertebrates, seeds and other plant material. Skylarks and meadow pipits have been observed to use the coastal dunes between Mexico Towans and Gwithian Towans for nesting in their breeding season (between late March and August), however their distribution hadn’t recently been recorded. Due to the ground-nesting behaviour of these birds, they are at risk of disturbance from dune-users and especially dogs, who can cause them to flush from their nests, negatively impacting their breeding success.

I decided to concentrate my research efforts on recording the distribution of these species on the dunes, with the hope of discovering their preferred habitat and whether their distribution correlates with public footpaths, where I predicted disturbance to be greater.

A map showing sighting locations of skylarks and meadow pipits
Skylark and meadow pipit initial sighting distribution

I focused my surveys within a 500m wide strip of dunes, parallel to the coast, as this is where a previous study had identified skylarks to be present. My surveys consisted of 15 transects located every 200m perpendicular to the coast. A typical survey morning would go something like this… I would set my alarm for 5am and leave the house at 5:20am to travel to the dunes, with the aim of completing two surveys within the first two hours of sunrise. I made sure to pack the equipment the night before: GPS, data and info sheets, clip board, note pad, and a flask for tea! Walking onto the dunes as the sun is rising is beautiful; often there is mist in the valleys, the birds are singing, and you can hear the sound of the waves on the shore. I would get into location for my first transect, starting on the coast, then walk as best I could in a straight line for 500m into the dunes, all the time listening for the song of a skylark or a ‘peep’ of a meadow pipit. Once I detected one, I would take a GPS of my location, then estimate the perpendicular distance between me and the bird. This data allowed me to then plot the distribution of these sightings back at home. After a morning of surveying, I enjoyed a hot cuppa on the edge of the dunes watching the sea before heading home for a nap!

The sun rises over the dune grass and scrub land. There is a low fog
Sunrise on the dunes.

I’m yet to begin my analysis, however, my initial results suggest that skylarks tend to be clustered nearer the shore, where I observed the marram grass to be more tussocky with patches of bare sand or short grass – perhaps this habitat is more preferrable for their nesting. Meadow pipits, on the other hand, appear to be more spread out. I am excited to begin my analysis and test whether a correlation between species distribution, habitat type, and perhaps distance to footpaths does exist for these species! I hope this data will provide important information for the protection of skylarks and meadow pipits on these dunes, to ensure their breeding season is a success.

Thank you to Andy Nelson, the Dynamic Dunescapes Engagement Officer, and Martin Rule, the Towans Ranger, for their support throughout this project.

A woman is seen walking through the dune grassland. The sun is rising, over the sand dunes in the distance
Morning survey