I went this Saturday, a morning of light rain and pewter grey cloud, to a neighbouring county to listen to a Nightingale. The location could hardly be less in harmony with this bird of legend and folklore, possessing a song like no other and that has captured the imagination of poets and writers down the ages. The place I chose was the small car park of a nature reserve right by a busy road, the noise of passing traffic hardly conducive to a tryst with this bird of romance and mystique.
At first there was no inkling of any Nightingale singing and for some time I heard nothing. Irritated by the endless traffic noise I wandered into the birch scrub, idling down wet and muddy pathways but the only songsters were Garden Warblers and Blackcaps.
I returned to the road and then I heard those familiar, incomparable and rich notes that seem to touch the souls of men and women like no other bird. How so small a bird can sing so loudly is incredible but it is the pure beauty and variety of notes uttered that catch at one's heart. Secreted in a bush, invisible for now, a russet brown and grey bird, as nondescript as its hiding place, poured forth notes of pure gold. Maybe the loudness of its song is counteracted by its subdued plumage to act as a deterrent from predators that may be attracted by its loud song.
I eventually found the bird, low down, deep within a twisted tangle of hawthorn and bramble twigs singing for all its worth against the background roar of cars. Its spirit, encapsulated in its song, transcended the chaos of the human tragedy currently enveloping us. Its song also, for me, a proclamation, as here on almost the edge of its northern distribution it is slowly being extirpated from our land by loss of habitat, ceaseless development and climate change.
I am glad to have known its song and discovered its secretive life and to be able to hear it, for now at any rate every year, although today not in the most ideal of locations
I formerly lived in rural Sussex, where I could go out on a warm May night, into a wood deep in the folds of the South Downs and listen to the Nightingales singing. There were many birds, the nearest loud, with others more distant as if an echo but all bringing a sense of romance and wonder to the silent moonlit land. Impossibly romantic yes but as I age, these are the memories, the waymarks of my life that I lovingly recall and use to re-assure and renew my faith in the natural world and the joy it brings.
Nightingales in England are secretive birds, not showing themselves readily but they sing loudly in April and May wherever they decide to settle. They seem to be provoked by noise, such as from my current location, whilst others have been heard to sing during bombing raids in the last war.
Their song seems charged with emotion, finding a lost chord within one during times of turmoil and uncertainty - a song ringing out against all the ills of the world, indomitable and defiant. Of course the birds themselves know nothing about such things and are singing for themselves but I rejoice that such a natural sound can bring forth such emotions from within me.
The nature writer Richard Mabey wrote that he has never been able to feel entirely excluded from a nightingale's performance or from its habitat. When he listens to one singing he knows that the singing is not for his benefit or even for the benefit of other birds but is composed and directed at neighbours of the same species. But still the song seems too public, too indiscriminatedly thrown into the air, too capable of arousing human emotions to be ignored.
The Nightingale sang on and standing quietly I eventually watched it fly up into a tree and sing from a bough. It was the moment I sought and for a minute I was granted the opportunity to view it almost in the open before it once more flew down to hide.
I left it there, the bird singing from deep in its tangled twiggy home and retraced my steps, my annual Nightingale fix once more coursing through body and soul.
John Keats in his poem Ode to a Nightingale, written in 1819, called it 'immortal Bird'.
Indeed it is.