Saturday 11 May 2019

And a Nightingale Sang 7th May 2019

No birding year can feel complete for me without going to hear Nightingales sing. Normally I go to the RSPB's Pulborough Brooks reserve in Sussex as a small population of this decreasing species can be found there and they often sing in the open which is normally not the case with Nightingales in England. Unlike their continental compatriots Nightingales in England seem to prefer to broadcast their extraordinary song from deep in the cover of a small tree, thick bush or tangled undergrowth.

However reports from Pulborough  indicated that the situation with the Nightingales was far from good this year due to changes made to the habitat, so I sought advice for somewhere else to go and Nick, another Oxonbirder, very kindly recommended trying Crookham Common BBOWT reserve which forms part of a wider reserve complex incorporating Greenham Common and which lies just south of Newbury.

It is just under an hour's drive for me from my home and so I left early in order to arrive well before the nine am watershed when the dreaded lady dog walkers seem prone to appear, having presumably dropped off their offspring at school. I found myself parking in the currently empty reserve car park at well before 8am on a sunny but chilly morning. Immediately on getting out of the car I could hear at least two Nightingales singing within metres of the car park although the noise of traffic from the adjacent busy road was a trifle intrusive.

The nearest Nightingale was singing incredibly loudly, one of the loudest I have ever heard, right by the road in a large hawthorn tree that was festooned in a mass of white blossom, brilliant in the sunshine and concealing the singer within.  Maybe the bird was singing at such volume to compete with the passing vehicles and the juxtaposition was not lost on me between the sublime, timeless and natural sound of the Nightingale's song and the ugly unnatural roar of combustion engines reflecting our human world and all its folly.

Many are the words that have been written about the Nightingale, about its extraordinary song and about its capacity to touch the human psyche and engender a range of emotions from deep melancholy to unbounded joy. It is a song of such beauty of  form and sound, that the composition of notes brings an exquisite pain and poignancy to the anyone who will listen. 

No other bird can compete with the volume and tone of the notes that pour forth from the hidden songster. The rich and rambling contralto warblings of Blackbirds and the pure notes of Blackcaps, both supreme singers, are subsumed by and subservient to the sheer volume, variety and phrasing of the Nightingale's singing. Each phrase seems as if pre rehearsed and is delivered with perfect timing before a brief silence, neither too long or too brief  but just right, is left hanging in the air, before another differing collection of notes are offered, and  always arranged in a perfection of delivery. Deep contralto notes pouring out at speed like mountain water over stones are counterpointed with perhaps the most notable of its utterances, an extended, descending, beseeching high note of absolute purity, repetitively delivered three, four, even five times, that reaches the very inner being, as if touching a hitherto unknown nerve within one.

The song is also delivered non stop for very long periods. Far longer than any other bird. A constant cascading torrent that rings through the wood and is unmistakeable, delivered not only through daylight hours but also throughout the romance of night, when its notes are at their pinnacle of perfection and most pure.

The song is not of the northern hemisphere but speaks of where the Nightingale migrates to and spends most of its life, in the deep tropical jungles, swamps and places of mystery undisturbed in the dark continent of Africa. Maybe that is why its song is so revered. It is out of place here and thus remarkable; exotic, rich and fecund like its African home and not of our scrubby commons, nettle patches and bramble brakes where it chooses to place its nest close to the ground.

The bird itself is hardly extrovert in its plumage or habits, being a rich chestnut brown above and creamy grey below and spending its time skulking low  down, out of sight in deep cover, apart from when it sings for just six weeks of the year in our woods and copses.

The Nightingale by the road, apart from the odd glimpse of a silhouette through the twigs against the sky, remained invisible within its fastness of the hawthorn but I could hear another singing a hundred metres away where the woodland bordered onto the open spaces of commonland.

I followed the sound and found it singing in a small birch tree but as soon as it saw me it dropped down lower, out of sight but continued to sing. Eventually I got a less than adequate image of it through intervening twigs and branches and try as I might never quite managed to record it fully in the open. However it moved to a gorse patch and here it showed itself rather better.

I stood quietly, listening to the Nightingale and then briefly saw its mate as the two birds flew fast and low round a stand  of gorse, their rich chestnut upperparts and tails utterly distinctive. A Garden Warbler was chortling its busy song in the trees behind me and Common Whitethroat's scratchy warbling songs came from across the common.

I heard another more distant Nightingale singing from some woodland further off and walked to investigate. I could hear the song becoming louder and louder as I approached but to see the singer was a different matter and not so easy. I needed to see the bird before it saw me as inevitably if it saw me first it would drop into cover and become invisible. I saw the Nightingale singing, perched on a small branch just a few feet off the ground but just as I did, so it too noticed me and was gone. Disappointing but I had now seen and heard three singing Nightingales.

The dreaded hour of 9am arrived and so did the dog walkers. It really is remarkable. Ladies mostly and often not just with a single dog but multiples of four or five dogs in tow. Endless barking and shouted commands to the dogs were enough to alter the mood and persuade me to retreat and maybe head for Farmoor Reservoir where a flock of around forty Black Terns had arrived this same morning.

I returned to the car and found that a fourth Nightingale had commenced singing in a hawthorn a little way down a track leading off from the car park and which I had not explored. I walked the few metres to where the song was coming from and it was, with much pleasure and relief, that I immediately found the Nightingale singing in a hawthorn, perched almost in the open. I stopped and raised the camera but of course at that very moment it chose to fly from me but not very far, only to another nearby tree where I could see it clearly and unobstructed as it perched and sang.

I took its photo many times, as such an opportunity does not present itself that often, but eventually I had all that I wanted. The Nightingale continued to sing, hardly moving position. On and on it went and I put the camera down on the grass and stood in the sunshine to watch and listen.

Willing it never to stop.

Immortal bird.


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