Wednesday 15 April 2015

And a Nightingale sang...... 14th April 2015

I used to live in Sussex which, even now with the increasing pressures of a rising human population, consequent house building and all the other paraphernalia that goes with human existence, is still in parts a very beautiful county. Nowhere more so than the RSPB's Pulborough Brooks Reserve in West Sussex.

Today was forecast to be sun, sun, and yet more sun, all day. Pulborough Brooks would be at its very best with the emergent vitality of Spring permeating every corner of the reserve and, best of all the Nightingales that have recently returned there from their African winter home would be singing. It was too much to resist, especially as the Nightingales at Pulborough are atypically very bold, showing no sign of the usual reticence and love of concealment that seems so prevalent with this species elsewhere in Britain. Pulborough seems to remove all inhibitions from them and they are usually highly visible giving great opportunities to observe them singing their wondrous song in beautiful surroundings.

I collected Peter on an Oxfordshire morning that was still waiting for the overnight mist to clear, although fleeting and welcome glimpses of light blue in the heavens gave notice of the improving day to come.

We wound our way down the busy A34, the roadside embankments now bright with the yellow of gorse in full flower and above the gorse bushes a delicate green haze covered the trees as buds broke and fresh leaves emerged. Once we were in West Sussex we made a swift diversion off the turmoil of the A27 to Enticotts in Selsey, the finest traditional bakers known to man, where we purchased some pasties and pastries for our lunch.

Arriving shortly afterwards at Pulborough RSPB in full sunshine we found the car park at this flagship reserve was already very full, being utilised by birders, dog walkers and families just out for a stroll. It was also extremely warm, encouraging Peter to don a pair of shorts whilst I was more circumspect, restricting removing winter plumage to just discarding my jumper.

Passing through the Visitor Centre and onto the reserve it was frankly a bit of a disappointment as there was not a sight or sound of any Nightingales. Photographers were leaving the reserve carrying their huge lenses as they passed us on the track, which was not a good sign. Maybe we had got here too late?

We walked down to the bottom of the hill to a place I knew was a favoured area for Nightingales.

There is always a Nightingale territory here where the path crosses a tiny brook and diverges into two. We waited on the bridge over the brook but all we heard were Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers.   I showed Peter the small pond where Great Crested Newts lived and sure enough a female newt swam languidly through the clear water and over  the sandy bottom.This was a first for Peter but there was still not a sight or sound of a Nightingale.

We basked in the pleasant sunshine or wandered a little way up and down the tracks through the brambles and hedgerows. There was nothing to do but wait and hope for the Nightingale to commence singing which would then betray its whereabouts. Meanwhile in a nearby dense Blackthorn thicket two male Blackcaps were having an intense 'singoff.' The usual clear melodious notes now transformed into a much faster, aggressive and scratchy warble with just the occasional clear note as the two rivals contested a territory or a female.

Twenty minutes passed and then that glorious, rich panoply of exotic notes issued from deep in an alcove of brambles and fallen trees.The branches and twigs of the trees and general tangle from whence the song came made looking for the Nightingale very difficult. The song got louder, even more intense, the volume incredible from such a slight bird, the richness and tone superlative. Many have tried to describe the song and the intense feelings of wonder and excitement it engenders but to my mind no one has really succeeded. It just has to be listened to, marvelled at and simply enjoyed for the brief six weeks the bird sings. It is so exotic and so unlike any other British bird song, speaking as it does of foreign lands and rich, fecund swamps and steamy jungle depths in places rarely inhabited or visited by man. Perhaps that is the charm of it, as it brings each year to our prosaic lives here in Britain a sense of unseen places and experiences unknown in our overpopulated island.

We looked and then I saw it. Just like that. Boldly sitting out in the open on top of a moss covered broken tree stem, silhouetted against the cobalt blue sky. The sun was shining directly at us so any colour was lost but here it was. It soon moved position and we tracked its progress as it variously gave  its ugly croaking alarm call and then in complete contradiction broke into the wondrous rich, ripe loudness of its song. The Nightingale flew high up into a sallow and in full view we could now see the colour of its plumage, a reddish chestnut all over its upperparts, even richer on the broad tail, the underparts a creamy grey. Opening its bill wide when singing it displayed a golden yellow interior. A larger bird than a Robin, more in size like a small thrush. Quite enchanting.

We followed it around as it moved to its various song perches, covering quite an extensive territory. Eventually it came really close to us and sat for a minute on a bramble spray before flying across the path and into the cover of a hedgerow.

As the hours passed so most people left the reserve, many to rest, chat and have tea in the cafe in the Visitor Centre. Not everyone is so intense about birding and for many it was apparent this was just as much a social event as a birding experience. There is nothing wrong in that of course and it should always be remembered that these are the people that by their support have enabled the RSPB to grow to the size it is and provide all of us with such wonderful and delightful reserves. Birding now encompasses such a diverse and bewildering range of groups of people all with their various priorities and desires and it is good that places such as Pulborough can cater for all tastes.

We sat on a shady bench and ate the pasties and pastries purchased from Enticotts, serenaded by woodland bird song. The Nightingale of course but also Blackcaps sang their clear warble and those two small non descript leaf warblers, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers, added their contribution. Banks of Primroses, the architypal floral harbinger of Spring, shone star bright and almost exotic amongst the contrasting fresh grass shoots and brown dead leaf litter of last year, their pale sulphur petals with egg yolk yellow centres irrepressible and the very epitomy of the optimism of Springtime.

Peacock butterflies cruised the rides. Their colouring at a casual glance, dark as the damp earth as they flew into the froth white blossoms of the Blackthorn hedge. Small stray white petals of the Blackthorn flowers, for all the world like tiny butterflies, twinkled to earth on the breeze.

A Comma cruised its territory up and down another ride and lemon yellow male Brimstones passed by along the hedgerows. These latter seem to have no territory but just purposefully flutter the byways and hedges on an endless quest for a female.

The Nightingale ceased singing and went quiet so we decided that now was the opportune time to explore further by walking around the entire reserve.  The veritable Easter Bunny sat quietly under a fallen log as we wandered past.

The reserve was comparatively quiet now, drowsy in the unaccustomed warm sun of mid afternoon. By this time most people had left for the day and the hides, their interiors smelling of musty warm wood were deserted. Lapwings and Little Egrets fed out on the sunlit brooks. Shelduck, Teal and Mallard dabbled in the shallow waters and a herd of Fallow Deer stood clustered shoulder to shoulder far out on the brooks, no doubt enjoying the breeze which kept away the flies.

Further along the track two Adders rustled their sinuous progress through some dead bracken and leaves. One was deep gold with dark brown zigzag markings which identified her as a female whilst the other, a male, was grey with black markings and both were around two feet long. They did not remain long, nervous about our presence and slithered into the security of the cool damp depths of the rotting leaf litter under the hedge.

We wandered from hide to hide not seeing much. At a viewing platform looking at some height down onto the wide expanse of the brooks and across to Pulborough itself, a Chiffchaff sang loudly above us in an Oak.

Pulborough Brooks with Pulborough in the distance
I played a snatch of its song on my I-phone and had an instant reaction as the bird came to investigate. I left the phone standing on a fence and the Chiffchaff much to our amusement came right up to the phone to investigate this strange looking, singing Chiffchaff.

Common Chiffchaff and I phone
Another bank of Primroses were being investigated by a Bee Fly. A strange furry brown insect and new to me, constantly hovering above the primroses and dreamily probing with its long proboscis into the golden heart of one flower after another.

Bee Fly nectaring on a Primrose flower
We completed our circuit of the reserve and found ourselves back where we had started from. The Nightingale had recommenced singing and the sun was still shining as we left the reserve and a now virtually empty car park. I felt as if I too had embraced the promise of Spring.

Cuckoo Flower

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