Monday, 9 May 2016

Immortal Bird 3rd May 2016

Last Friday I made an early morning trip to Pulborough Brooks RSPB Reserve in West Sussex. It is an annual pilgrimage that I make at this time of the year for two reasons; namely I love to return to Sussex  where I lived for ten or so years and which, at this time of the year is very beautiful, but mainly it is to see and hear the Nightingales.

Pulborough Brooks has the almost unique distinction in that its Nightingales perch and sing quite brazenly in the open, unlike the majority of this species which usually sing low down from deep cover and are greatly averse to showing themselves. Why the Nightingales of Pulborough behave so differently has never been adequately explained to me but I and everyone else who visit the reserve to see them certainly do not complain.

So it was that I found myself entering a deserted reserve through a back gate at 6.30am and making my way along various pathways to Adder Alley, an area of rabbit mown grassland, bracken and thick hedgerow some distance from the main centre of the reserve. The name Adder Alley came about because it is here that Adders and Grass Snakes seem to prefer, the former often basking on the piles of dead bracken cut and left for that purpose. When I arrived the grass was still slightly frosted from the cold night before but the sky was clear and blue and the day promised to be one of unbridled sunshine. This particular area is also the summer home this year of two pairs of Nightingales, the males singing within less than a hundred metres of each other.

A baby rabbit helping to keep the grass down at Adder Alley
I could hear them long before I reached Adder Alley. Similar notes of each bird's individual song were produced at identical times, almost as if the birds were singing in harmony. The singing did not stop when I arrived and the birds took no apparent notice or alarm at my presence. One was singing from the top of a hawthorn, the other from a small elm. I was totally alone as the songsters competed with each other, their songs permeating through the surrounding trees and hedgerows and across the still frosted fields, whilst a dapper, rotund Bullfinch, resplendent in all his Spring finery positively shone in the sunlight as he fed on willow flowers, all the while keeping in touch with his mate by means of a subdued melancholy piping.

I focused my attention on the Nightingale perched near the top of the elm sapling, embowered amongst the bright green emerging leaves, both leaves and bird silhouetted against a ceiling of ethereal blue in the early morning sunlight. 

I watched as it sang a song of such beauty, passion and volume that it can easily take control of your very soul causing it to surge wildly across a range of emotions. The phrases and notes are of such intensity that they transcend all other birdsong. Songs considered beautiful such as the pure notes of the Blackcap and the contralto, languid warblings of the Blackbird are diminished in its presence. The song is a masterpiece not only of the notes that comprise it but also of performance. The Nightingale's song is not continuous but is a series of phrases made all the more memorable by the gaps of silence in between each phrase. It is as if the bird is reviewing each sung phrase and at the same time keeping you in heightened expectation and anticipation of what is coming next. It can be a rich chuckling warble then silence, followed by a series of long, crescendic high single notes, another silence and then another variation of the warble or even a repetition of what has just gone before. The volume is incredible for such a small bird and it sings both night and day.

The  song of the  Nightingale has been described in countless ways, stimulated millions of words in praise of it and the thoughts and feelings it engenders in humankind. I cannot add to such words, that in the main are far more eloquent than I can ever achieve. H.E Bates wrote in description of the song the following, which in my humble opinion is unlikely to be bettered.

'It has some kind of electric, suspended quality that has a far deeper beauty than the most passionate of its sweetness. It is a performance made up, very often more of silence than of utterance. The very silences have a kind of passion in them, a senses of breathlessness and restraint about to be magically broken. It can be curiously seductive and maddening, the song beginning very often by a sudden low chucking, a kind of plucking of strings, a sort of tuning up, then flaring out in a moment into a crescendo of fire and honey and then, abruptly cut off again in the very middle of the phrase. And then comes that long suspended wait for the phrase to be taken up again, the breathless hushed interval that is so beautiful. And often, when it is taken up again, it is not the same phrase at all, but something utterly different, a high sweet whistling prolonged and prolonged for the sheer joy of it, or another trill, or the chuck chucking beginning all over again.'

I heard my first Nightingales deep in the countryside of rural Sussex on a still and warm Spring midnight. The darkness, unsullied by artificial light enveloped me in a velvet blackness as I stood on the track by the bluebell wood whilst several Nightingales, both close and distant, made the otherwise silent night magical with sound.

It is said the song is more varied and stronger at night and indeed for all romantics night is the best time to hear it. I still have the memory of taking my then new girlfriend but now my wife of many years to a country pub in Sussex and hearing a Nightingale singing in the distance of that romantic night and like to think that maybe the Nightingale's evocative song sealed our relationship.

Today, many years hence, I watched as another Nightingale sang and enchanted me, flattening its back, dropping its tail, raising and extending its head upwards as, like a diva it effortlessly broadcast the notes of its song from deep within its body, its bill wide open but the lower mandible like that of some marionette, rapidly opening and shutting as it vocalised with such intensity that its whole body quivered, and then, in the periods of silence, its form relaxed, becoming rounded, content, until the next vocal outpouring.

It sang for much of the time when I first arrived, at least for the first hour and a half. Occasionally it would descend to the ground to feed like a small thrush, hopping through the grass or along the side of a sunken footpath hunting for food but after a short period would always fly back up to its favoured perch and recommence singing.

I sat on a bench in the sun and as its song permeated the woods fell into a mood of contemplation about the Nightingale's epic journey to be perched on this sapling elm in rural Sussex. A small bird slightly bigger than a robin, with an overall chestnut tinged upperpart plumage, becoming a rich rufous on the tail and with creamy grey underparts, it  has travelled from the humid equatorial depths of an African forest, over land and sea, unseen and unsensed through the dark of many nights to descend from the starry blackness unnoticed and unheralded one late April night in Sussex and the next day announces its presence with a song made in heaven, bringing a sense of the exotic previously missing from the land. Maybe it's the fact it only sings for six to eight weeks which adds so much store to its song and presence, maybe it's because the song's charm is finite and restricted and like all good performers it leaves you wanting more but the encore only comes each subsequent Spring.

Its nest is made deep in the nettles and other plants that form a  thick ground cover growing up in tangles through bushes, bramble, low tree branches or impenetrable hedges. The alarm note is the exact converse of its beautiful song being a gutteral frog like croak, bringing something of the African swamp to our northern climes and again quite unique in sound, as it is issued from deep within the undergrowth.

I wandered down the byway behind where it was singing and a Common ChiffChaff flitted and hopped amongst the tangled undergrowth but seemed strangely reluctant to leave, calling gently in anxiety. I stood back and it slipped down to almost ground level in the rank grass and brambles near the path's edge and revealed a domed nest of moss and leaves exquisitely hidden. A Blackcap warbled his song from a small willow, the notes now seeming thin and watered down compared to the Nightingale that had been singing above it.

Common ChiffChaff
The morning gently passed away towards noon and the warm sunshine brought out some Orange Tips that flew along the rides or rested to soak in the sun that fuels their flight.

And as the hours progressed I continued to watch the Nightingale, now regularly alternating between singing and flying down to hop on the grass and dead bracken to feed. 

As the sun intensified a trio of Grass Snakes became entwined, writhing in an amphitheatre of dead grass under some bramble by the path but I did not encounter any Adders. 

Grass Snakes
Other visitors and photographers began to arrive attracted by the presence of the Nightingales. Some photographers stood far too close to the hedgerow and I knew that the Nightingale would not come there but seek the sheltered secluded byway on the other side of the hedge. Every one has a camera these days but sadly not always the common sense or understanding to go with it

Photographers wondering why the Nightingale does not appear in the hedge.
No true birder would stand that close
The byway that the Nightingale sought, flying down to feed on the grass bank
No photographers here!
With the arrival of other people intent on seeing the Nightingale the spell for me was broken as I prefer my own company in situations like this. I left the Nightingale, still singing and its song came with me as I walked back through the bright sunlight and intense greenery of the reserve.


  1. You have caught the essence of Nightingales
    brilliantly within your writing...