I am not one for show case reserves such as the RSPB's Pulborough Brooks and the like. I do not care much for hides, nor the restrictions of pathways and boardwalks and find the hordes of people that reserves such as Pulborough attract disconcerting. I prefer birding in less populous, less structured places. This I admit is a self inflicted personal preference so it is up to me whether I visit such places or not.
Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex is if you like, an RSPB honeypot and show case reserve. I fully accept and understand that such places serve a vital and laudable service in promoting birding in all its manifest forms to the wider public of all ages. Not everyone is as obsessed with birding as I am and many prefer the simple and innocent pleasures of pottering around reserves like Pulborough, enjoying the countryside, looking at the occasional bird, browsing the shop and taking refreshment in the cafe.
I visited Pulborough today with one objective - to see a Nightingale. Arriving at the Car Park mid morning I was amazed to see just how popular this reserve has become. Coaches full of noisy, excited children on educational forays with their teachers and other more mature guided groups were prominent. The car park was full and even the overflow car park was reaching maximum capacity. This on a weekday mid morning.
I wandered down the main track and came upon a Garden Warbler singing high up in an Oak. My first for the year. Blackcaps, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were all singing as I made my way further downhill. Two Jays in looping flight flew from tree to tree before me.
I came to the bottom of the hill and there at a junction in the tracks by a small bridge, in full voice, was a Nightingale. There is usually one in this spot every year. No other UK bird can touch a singing Nightingale. Its song speaks of mysterious, fecund, steamy swamps and rich rain forests in faraway tropical Africa and to me does not belong in this country but mirrors the richness and the variety of the myriad sounds of southern hemisphere jungles, sounds impossibly exotic in our more prosaic land. It seems to bring all the aural and visual richness, density and excess of the dark continent in its voice and spread it for a brief six weeks through the tangle of nettles and shrubbery that it chooses for its summer home.
Nightingales in the UK are often quite hard to see as they habitually sing from deep cover and display a shyness that is not characteristic of the species in the rest of Europe. However at Pulborough, for unknown reasons, they seem unafraid to sing in the open and frequently show themselves really well.
Today was no exception as I found the Nightingale perched low down and fully in the open of a just leafing tree singing lustily and loudly within just a few metres of the footpath. Larger than you expect with an open greyish face, large dark eye and upperparts of a rich chestnut brown, it sat on a small branch. This particular one sang on and on with bursts of constantly varied deep rich notes emanating from its wide open bill. Occasionally it would stop singing and utter an alarm note, a harsh guttural croak, such a contrast to the sweet and melodic notes of its song.
I watched it for some twenty minutes lost in memories of Africa brought back by its exotic warbling and as I did other people coming down the path stopped and slowly they built up into quite a crowd, curious as to what was the attraction, although some to my bewilderment seemed to show no interest and just walked past. I am glad so many people saw it and heard its marvellous song. For me, eventually, the growing crowd became too much and the same also appeared to occur to the Nightingale for it flicked its wings and with a croak descended into the cover of some low hawthorns. As I walked up the path it began to sing again, now hidden and once more mysterious.