Tuesday 17 May 2022

Nightingale Time 12th May 2022

Mark (P) called to enquire if I was of a mind to go and look for the Nightingales that are found near Greenham Common in Berkshire.It is a known hot spot for them, although its location is hardly propitious, sandwiched as it is between a busy and consequently noisy road and a car park commandeered by numerous dog walkers, who fortunately eschew walking the woods, preferring to exercise their canine companions on the surrounding open space of common land.

The close proximity of a road and busy car park does perversely benefit the Nightingales by scaring off the deer that browse the wood's understorey, removing the dense underlying habitat where Nightingale's like to nest.The burgeoning deer population is now a major problem in Britain and a recognised contributory factor to the Nightingale's increasing scarcity in England.

On an early and sunny morning Mark parked the car and stepping out from the vehicle we instantly heard a Nightingale singing close to the road, only metres away in fact.Their song is unmistakeable and like no other. Astounded by both the loudness, the complexity and tonal variety of the notes that pour forth at high volume from such a small and unlikely source, you are compelled to stop and marvel at the hidden songster.

For hidden they always are, shy and shunning exposure they sing from deep in the cover of leaf and branch as if worried that the boldness of their song will attract unwelcome attention.In Europe they are far more prone to sing in the open but for some reason to see one away from a density of foliage in Britain is exceptional. We walked towards the invisible bird but held little hope of seeing it as they invariably see you before you see them and will immediately drop out of sight or fly to another more concealed perch.

We were lucky however, as within minutes we saw the bird singing on a bare branch but deep within the woodland. For a minute it carried on singing but then noticed us and fled and we heard it no more. Another was singing from the further side of the woodland and we followed the sound to find it perched deep within a willow, much obscured by branches and leaves but nonetheless satisfactorily viewable

We then heard two others, singing in a part of the wood bisected by a track that ran between the road and the dog walkers car park, a track hardly ever used and thus quiet and undisturbed. 

The track through the wood.The Nightingale 
sang from the tree on the right of the track

One bird was singing from deep within the impenetrable trees and scrub, totally invisible, totally inaccessible, but the other had chosen to sing very close to the track. Here was our best chance of seeing one well. At first we could not locate it. Perched tantalisingly close it poured forth those familiar notes. Scanning with our bins we eventually found it perched at head height on a slender bough.

I have never seen a bird that opens its bill so wide to sing as does a Nightingale. Possibly it does this to better broadcast those celebrated notes at such intensity, its lower mandible jigging up and down like a marionettte on a string, the feathers of its swelling throat distended with the effort, its body vibrating as it produces phrase after phrase of rich and liquid sound. The notes pour forth, melodious, gurgling, chugging and finally comes an extended plaintive high note of supreme purity. beseeching, imploring and repeated several times over, then brief silence follows until the next explosion of song.

Luck was again with us as this bird had not read the script about concealment and although never fully in the open was visible to such an extent we were able to see it very well. We spent quite some time standing quietly on the track and in so doing found it moved between two favoured small trees and had distinct preferred perches within the trees, from which it sang and if we waited long enough it would come to perch on one of  these and allow us to see it singing for extended periods.

They are larger than a robin and smaller than a thrush, satisfyingly robust with rich chestnut head and upperparts, an even brighter, broad chestnut tail, a greyish breast and otherwise buff white underparts..Unremarkable in appearance maybe but it is the incomparable song that elevates the bird from the commonplace to the exceptional.Immortal bird indeed!

Despite competition from two other melodious singers in the form of a nearby Garden Warbler and Blackcap, it dominated by the sheer power of its song and its delivery. Here, in a remnant of unexceptional woodland in southern England, it has brought, for the six short weeks it will sing, the mystical allure of the boundless tropical forests and jungles of equatorial Africa that are its home for most of the year.

Still only approaching 10am, Mark consulted his RBA App to discover a report of a female Red footed Falcon at a disused gravel pit near Woolhampton, which lay but six miles away from our current location. Mark had never seen a Red footed Falcon so it was obvious where we were going next.

This is a good bird to see, not just for Mark but for me too.They spend their winter in southern Africa and make a long migration to breed in eastern Europe and Asia and sadly, they too are in decline due to habitat loss and hunting. They are a rare but virtually annual vagrant to Britain, the majority of which are first summer individuals, somehow straying too far west from their usual migration route that lies well to the east of Britain. These first summer birds are in no hurry as they will not breed this year so often remain for a few days, replenishig their energy reserves before reorienting themselves eastwards.

After a somewhat circuitous route due to a temperamental satnav we finally found the location, a none too obvious layby on a narrow rural road with room for a few cars, that led to a gate and a track beyond that wound its way to the lake in question. We were fortunate that as we arrived  so did a local birder and he showed us the way.I doubt we would have found it so easily otherwise.

Eventually, after passing yet another singing Nightingale, we came to a very small gap in the trees which served as a restricted viewing area over the lake. Half a dozen birders were already ensconced there and looking at the falcon. Graciously some of them vacated their positions so we could view the bird. It was flying somewhat distantly above the lake, hawking for dragonflies, around and above two small islands. The falcon's mode of flying and hunting was similar to the more familiar Hobby that comes here for the summer and at one point was joined by one.

It was supremely agile on the wing, swooping and soaring. gliding and then increasing speed to intercept a high flying dragonfly, seizing the insect in its claws and then bringing its bunched feet up to its bill to consume the unfortunate ins.

The falcon flew constantly and effortlessly looking for its winged prey, sometimes coming low but most often remaining high in the sky and was on view virtually all the time we were there.

Females, such as this individual are to my mind more attractive than the males, which unlike the female are uniformly grey all over, whereas the female is an appealing combination of brownish grey, barred upperparts, a many barred tail and a white head  crowned pale orange with a black face mask. The underparts are orangy buff. The predominance of grey and orange plumage always pleasing on the eye.

We watched the falcon for around half an hour and then left for home.

This had been a good day.

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