Tuesday 1 May 2018

And a Nightingale sang .......... 28th April 2018

                                   So sweet, so shrill, so variously she sung,
                                   That the grove echoed, and the valleys rung;
                                   And I so ravished with her heavenly note,
                                   I stood entranced, and had no room for thought,
                                   But all o'erpowered with ecstacy of bliss,
                                   Was in a pleasing dream of paradise ........

                             Anon, late 15th century. Adapted by John Dryden, 1700

I cannot survive a Spring without hearing the song of a Nightingale at least once. Here in Oxfordshire they are rare and somehow do not fit my mood even if I find one. Probably I am biased as I first became familiar with their song in Sussex, where I lived many years ago, standing in bluebell woods on warm evenings and nights or during Spring days when the winds were still chill as the Nightingales sang constantly, night and day, from the impenetrable and mysterious depths of bushes and brambles below the South Downs.

It therefore seems appropriate to take myself back to Sussex each year to listen to them once again and indulge myself in a bitter sweet melancholy about the happy times I spent in Sussex. Collecting Moth at 5am we set off for the RSPB's reserve at Pulborough in West Sussex. The longed for sunshine was conspicuously absent and it was a grey and overcast early morning, even raining occasionally, as we made our way south. Not the best weather in which to seek out this famed bird or lift my spirits.

Nightingales are on the extreme northwest of their range in Britain and are declining due to loss of habitat and were once far more common in Britain than they are now. The national population has declined by ninety percent in the last fifty years to around four thousand pairs.They are abundant in the Mediterranean, and Spain, Italy and France where each still have expanding populations of up to a million pairs. In Britain they are confined south of a line running from the Humber to the Severn and in recent years have retreated  southeast, so that most pairs are concentrated between Hampshire and Norfolk. They are extinct in Wales and have never been recorded breeding in Scotland or Ireland. 

Thankfully Sussex still holds reasonable numbers.  

The continuing threat to the Nightingale is currently being made only too apparent as Medway Council in Kent, despite a petition from twelve thousand people objecting and having had their original plan rejected have defied national planning rules and gone ahead and included Lodge Hill, which is recognised as now the best site in Britain for breeding Nightingales and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, in a new draft local plan that continues to designate Lodge Hill as being suitable for thousands of new homes. I despair, I really do.

We made good time in getting to Pulborough and arrived at the reserve at around seven. At this time the reserve was virtually deserted which was our reason for getting up so early as we could try and find a singing Nightingale without having to negotiate the many visitors that were bound to come to this popular reserve on a weekend.

We walked down the damp track to a little wooden bridge over a stream where traditionally a Nightingale is usually found singing in most years. Nightingale's are notoriously skulking birds and difficult to see as they sing through the day from a perch hidden and deep in their favourite habitat of dense scrub and bushy thickets. The birds sing both night and day and it is said that they sing best at night but this may be because there is little competition from other songbirds and the Nightingale's song consequently sounds all the purer. 

Pulborough has developed something of a reputation for harbouring Nightingales that are more willing to sing in the open than is usual. Today, however, there was not a sight or sound of a Nightingale. The songs of Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler were the only birdsong we could hear thus far.

The reserve was forlorn looking in the grey morning light and a little depressing after the overnight and early morning rain, and grey clouds loomed low and oppressive over the reserve.We walked back a little way up the track and stood to listen at another favoured spot but still there was not a Nightingale singing. And thus it remained for some while until, finally, a brief few seconds of Nightingale song came from a dense patch of bushes and tangle a little way off the track. Just a few notes came but they were unmistakeable. So loud and rich, quite unlike anything else that can be heard in the woods of Britain. A Blackcap had been singing close to us, its song loud and pure but on hearing the Nightingale you realise that here is a higher dimension of song altogether and just how much more powerful is the sound, the notes with the acoustic equivalent of rich treacle that seems to flow through the wood, an extraordinary depth and luxuriousness of sound which reduces the Blackcap's short melodic warble to relatively mundane insignificance. In fact a Nightingale's song can reach ninety five decibels which is the equivalent to standing twenty five feet from a passing motorbike!

Eventually the Nightingale sang for a prolonged period and then the fabled notes came fast, typically always in short phrases of exquisite beauty, each phrase with a considered silence in between as if the bird is reflecting on what it has just sung or contemplating what phrase to sing next. Most heart rending were the extended, almost beseeching single notes given three, four or even five times in succession and left hanging in the air, as it commenced to sing after one of its brief pauses. These notes seem to contain an emotion that comes from the soul, troubling even, and that touches something that is almost too poignant to contemplate.

The Nightingale's song. which can contain up to two hundred and fifty different phrases, surely should  not belong here, in the marginal tangles and scrubby places of small trees, scattered hedgerows and nettle patches in which it chooses to nest but in the Nightingale's winter home of deep tropical forests where everything is gigantic and fecund. African forests, untouched and untrod by any human, dark and mysterious, hot and steamy with heat rising from the depths of loamy rainforest floors. But no, the Nightingale cares not a jot. Its song by chance of evolution is magnificent and is, like every other bird that sings, its way of advertising itself and it is us with our superior intelligence and consequent emotional imagination that place such store on it. But I nevertheless rejoice that it is so.

The Nightingale  we listened to remained invisible so I suggested we walk further into the reserve to other places where I had seen Nightingales in years past. A Cuckoo called and flew across a field as we followed a winding track and we met a man with a camera coming the other way who told us he had just received a call from his wife about a young Tawny Owl sat in a large Oak tree by a small track near the West Mead Hide. This was too good to pass up and we followed him and came across his wife who pointed out the owlet sitting steadfastly on a large bough above us and just a little way in from the path. 

Juvenile Tawny Owl
It remained perched here with eyes firmly closed and did not move as we took its picture. Perhaps there was a slight inclination of its head in response to our chattering below but it was hardly discernible Still with a lot of grey fluffy down adhering to its feathers we could see that its wings were almost fully formed although probably not capable of permitting it to fly strongly and they had the brown and buff marbled colouring of a fully grown bird. Brown patches elsewhere on its body indicated other adult feathers would soon be evident. One of its parents had been seen nearby earlier but had now disappeared although presumably it would come back to feed the owlet during the following night. 

It has been a long time since I have seen a newly fledged Tawny Owl so we spent quite some time with it. Young owls such as this often lack the innate instinct of adults to hide themselves away and can often perch openly. Having spent the first few weeks of its life in a hole with probably others, it is understandable that it would want to move to more congenial surroundings and it also makes sense for the brood, once they are capable, to disperse to various points nearby so as to reduce the risk of predation. 

We tried, unsuccesfully it has to be said, to get a photo of the owl without some annoying leaves and twigs getting in the way. Unfortunately the young owl was not inclined to move an inch and remained stoically rooted to the bough so we made the best of it.

With the owl statuesque there was little point in remaining and we left it to itself and returned to the Nightingale which was now singing more regularly and eventually showed itself but was always careful to remain partially hidden, perched on a spray deep in the tangle of branches and twigs that it had made its summer home. There was not to be the brazen exhibitionism of its kind that I had encountered in previous years at Pulborough (see below).

Nightingales at Pulborough in 2016
Nonetheless by being patient we managed to locate the Nightingale each time it flew up into a bush or small tree to sing and on some occasions it gave reasonably good views although always partially obscured by the odd branch, twig or leaf. 

They are non descript birds, about six inches long, slightly larger than a Robin with russet brown upperparts and a similarly coloured, slightly broad and rounded tail. The underparts are a dull buff grey completing a plumage that suits very well its habitat and the fact it nests virtually on the ground.

It sang for short periods, interspersed with absences and silence. Occasionally it would reveal its invisible presence by uttering a frog like croaking alarm call and later would begin to sing again.We watched as two birds chased each other at high speed, virtually tail to tail, around and around the centre of a small tree, their wings flicking, dodging between the twigs with a dexterity that was truly amazing. It looked like the male was displaying to a female, as he fanned his russet tail and partially opened his wings, following the female to where she disappeared into a bank of nettles under some thick bushes by the track, while he remained perched on a branch watching. After a short period he recommenced singing.

We left the Nightingale once more and walked around the entire reserve, following the trails to the various hides, admiring the bluebells, violets and primroses that lined the banks and edges of the trails. Our walk revealed another three singing Nightingales but none of these were visible, all hidden deep in tangled vegetation. We returned via the path that ran under the Oak tree providing a temporary home to the young Tawny Owl  and as far as I could see it had not moved an inch.

We returned to the Nightingale and realised quite some time had passed un-noticed, as now the reserve was getting populated and a noisy group of children made the Nightingale shy and although it carried on singing intermittently afterwards, it remained invisible, retreating further back into the sanctuary of the trees and bushes.

We headed back to the Visitor Centre and after a coffee set off for home.

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