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Tracking down May’s magical songster

Posted: Tuesday 26th May 2015 by TimBirch

Dawn walk, Tim BirchDawn walk, Tim Birch

I last heard nightingales sing more than a decade ago. It was just after midnight on a starry May evening and, from dense blackthorn scrub on the Dutch coast, they were seemingly everywhere, writes Tim Birch

Even in the midst of an evening spring chorus the song of the nightingale was unmistakable

Flocks of Brent geese flew north overhead with their calls drowned out by the nightingales’ song.

Work took me over overseas and into the southern hemisphere but every May I would think about these birds pouring into Europe and adding to the soundtrack of Spring.

This year I was determined to get back out on the nightingale trail in England. I feel like Spring is incomplete if I’ve not heard its song emanating from a May blossom, on a still evening with a full moon. For me, it’s the very essence of Spring. Nothing else comes close.

But finding nightingales still singing in England is becoming harder every year. Their numbers are decreasing dramatically. Exactly why is not clear but it seems to be a mixture of ongoing habitat degradation, outright development and pesticides may play a part in decreasing available insect life. Problems in their wintering areas and on their migration routes could also be involved.

Areas where I used to hear them, 10-15 years ago, within a couple of hours of where I live in Derbyshire, have now lost their nightingales. This is shocking and it saddens me that more and more people are losing the opportunity to come across, without doubt, nature’s finest vocalist on a May evening.

Long-time campaigner Chris Rose is running a brilliant campaign to try and stem the loss of our nightingales. He pointed me in the right direction of locations where I could still hear them. We decided on Paxton Pits in Cambridgeshire – a fantastic small nature reserve.

After checking out the weather we headed south, via Rutland Water to see if nightingales were singing there but with no luck. With heavy traffic on the A1 we managed to check into our B&B with just an hour of daylight left. We told the owner we’d be out for most of the night and would like a late breakfast so we could grab a few hours sleep after dawn. Surprisingly, she fully understood and explained that nightingales are good business for her. She has many guests wanting to hear them at this time of the year who also stay out late and enjoy late breakfasts. I didn’t know nightingales were so good for the local economy!

Paxton Pits seems to have its own nightingale fan-base and, after chatting to passers-by and dog walkers, we were soon able to visit the spots where the birds were singing. Even in the midst of an evening spring chorus the song of the nightingale was unmistakable. There it was, belting out its spring serenade and rising above the din of blackbirds, song thrushes, robins, blackcaps and willow warblers. We passed one singing male, another and then another. It seemed we had hit the nightingale jackpot.

There it was, belting out its spring serenade and rising above the din of blackbirds, song thrushes, robins, blackcaps and willow warblers

These birds certainly have drawing power. People had come from all over to listen to them. You hardly ever see them but their voice is all you need to know about them. For me, the most magical experience to be had is to listen in the dark after the chaos of the day has drawn to a close. It is just you, the nightingale and the night; nothing more.

At 11pm, in the distance and from across the lake, we hear a new bird we hadn’t heard earlier. Skirting around the water we track him down. He is singing from the middle of a large May blossom tree – even in the half light of the gloaming I can see the tree has blossom cascading from nearly every branch. We get closer and closer. The bird doesn’t mind us at all – it keeps pouring out song like a never-ending waterfall. Every phrase seems unique. I record it on my mobile phone. How can we let one of nature’s finest vocalists disappear from our lives I ask myself? How can we connect more people to them for, if we do, surely more would want to help them and, believe me, nightingales need our help now.

This bird sang non-stop for more than an hour until, within a metre of us, a fox shrieked and gave me, my wife and the nightingale quite a shock. The singing stopped and we made our way home.

But as we left Paxton Pits I wondered…. how long would nightingales hold on here?


Tim listened to this nightingale sing for more than an hour - click here to listen to a four minute snippet. Enjoy!

You can find out more about Chris Rose’ campaign here.


Read TimBirch's latest blog entries.


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