Monday 15 May 2023

A Nightingale Sang in ............ 15th May 2023

Each year I try to find the time to go and see Nightingales in the neighbouring county of Berkshire as they are now virtually non existent in Oxfordshire.

I got up very early this morning to make an hour long drive to a location where I know they are usually present. Leaving my home at 6am it was chilly and misty. I drove south and the visibility gradually improved but remained dull. It was also markedly cold for mid May. Would this mean the Nightingales would not be singing?

Arriving at my destination so early on a Sunday morning meant I had the place to myself. It is a popular location for dog walking so it is best to avoid arriving after nine. Getting out of the car I expected to hear Nightingales singing but instead there was nothing. In the still and cold air other birds were singing, notably a Garden Warbler, belting out its song, close to where I had parked.

I walked along a couple of tracks in the surrounding woodland hoping to hear a Nightingale but the woods were devoid of any intimation of their presence. Now what to do? Go back to the car and wait for them to commence singing as surely they were here?

I could not face sitting in the car so walked to another area  of woodland bordered by scrubby gorse and bushes.I knew from past years that this location was often inhabited by a pair of Nightingales so I stood inside the edge of the wood and scrub and waited.Half an hour later I was still waiting.Nothing.

A Nightingale's song is unmistakeable. Loud, amazingly loud for such a small bird and we all know how beautiful and fabled is its song, encompassing rich, throaty warbles and long beseeching, single notes,  the delivery of each phrase interspersed with a small interval of silence and rarely do the same notes come in the succeeeding phrase.

How I longed to hear it now but the wood remained silent.

Then a small rendition of unmistakeable nightingale song came from my right, so brief and so unexpected it was gone almost before it registered. Did I imagine it? Another spell of standing and waiting ensued but with more expectancy now and then there it was again, those rich notes, more prolonged and seemingly closer.

I scanned the gorse scrub but it was not there.I looked higher at the trees and there was a Nightingale, perched close to the thin trunk of a birch. 

I moved closer praying that such a notoriously shy bird would not flee on detecting me. It remained silent for a moment and then broke into full song, its bill opened wide, white feathered throat swelling as it  delivered those fabled notes.

My decidedly downbeat mood instantly changed on seeing and hearing this bird.Singing its liquid notes on a dull, cold early morning. Its body trembling with the effort. It was only 8.00am.

Nightingales in Britain never truly sing in the open but prefer to sing from deep cover, unlike in the rest of Europe where they sing more openly, and they are really hard to photograph due to the dull light which is an inevitable consequence of where they choose to sing in this country. To see this one, relatively in the open was remarkable and I settled to see what would happen with this particular bird and to endeavour to take advantage of its unusually confiding behaviour.

I could not have known in advance it would be so comparatively untroubled by my presence and although wary it would regularly appear fairly close to me, singing loudly. It was obvious that where I was standing was at the heart of its territory and it would regularly commence to sing from various perches in the gorse and birch scrub to both the left and right of me.Standing with my back to a larger tree I masked my profile and I am sure this meant that the bird was not so wary. If I moved but an inch to get a better view or angle for a photo it would immediately drop down into cover and disappear for minutes on end, only to fly up from a different part of the scrub to sing once again.

I stayed where I was and eventually came to recognise that one particular area of the scrub and gorse was regularly revisited by the Nightingale. Here it would perch quietly, preen and occasionally sing.

While it was preening, on one occasion I detected some movement on the ground below and on checking in my bins discovered another Nightingale, walking on the litter of last year's dead leaves. This must therefore be a pair, something I have never observed before and for me, an ex nest recorder for the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), quite exciting.

Presumably this was where they are intending to nest  and I felt it prudent to absent myself.

Walking back though the woods, worryingly there was no Nightingale song. I had heard no other Nightingale singing in two hours when usually there are at least three singing males on their territories here. I do hope the Nightingale I saw and heard this morning is not the only one.

As with many bird species Nightingales are declining in Britain. They are in any case restricted to southern Britain, being more a southern  European species and in Britain are on the northern extremity of their breeding range. Not only do they make a hazardous journey from equatorial Africa where they winter but now are having to cope with loss of habitat due to human activities and the burgeoning deer population in England which removes the understorey, below which is where they build their nest on or near to the ground

I may return to see if there are more Nightingales than on this visit but feel glad that for another year I have heard a Nightingale sing.

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