Thursday, 26 April 2018

In search of Nightingales, 26th April

I always look forward to spring and the summer breeding birds that arrive with it. It warms the soul and dispels the winter gloom to see the many different species of warblers, chats, hirundines and swifts, terns and others that make the UK their home for the breeding season. Of these there are a few that I eagerly seek out each April and May such as grasshopper and wood warblers, pied flycatcher, cuckoo, swift and especially the nightingale. The nightingale is simply the best songster that we have visit these shores, it's rich and loud song resonates through the thick undergrowth in it's scrubland home even though actually seeing one requires great patience at times and an understanding of the birds habits and movements.

Our usual port of call to see and hear nightingales requires a visit to Paxton Pits in Cambridgeshire nowadays since the nightingale as a breeding bird has all but vanished in Oxfordshire. Years ago they bred in a woodland just a few miles from Bicester but sadly they've not been encountered there for over a decade. Paxton Pits has been one of the more reliable places to catch up with them until last year when they suddenly became more elusive. In two separate visits last year we only had fleeting views of one bird although a couple sang heartily enough. When we first went to Paxton around 8 years ago there were over 40 singing male nightingales recorded, last year there were just 4! A sad indication of the times and the general decline in many of our songbirds.

Nightingale from Paxton Pits in previous years

We usually get our views of nightingales between the 12-25th April and continually check the information services to see what birds have arrived. When birds used to breed in the local woods they always arrived on or within a day or so of St. Georges Day. This winter was prolonged so spring was slow to get going so we left our trip up to Paxton until the 18th. A couple of birds had been heard singing in the usual places. However on a lovely warm afternoon we didn't hear any singing in our 4 hour visit. Not a nightingale dickie bird! Other birders tried to convince me twice that nightingales were singing but they were mistaken being fooled by first a blackcap (a bit similar but not really) and a great tit (nothing like it!). We did get some late season brambling as compensation but left thinking that we'd have to try somewhere else for our main quarry this year.


Nightingales breed closest to home on the gravel pits south of Reading and on the commons south of Newbury. Indeed we'd found 3 singing birds on Greenham Common a few years ago but they were difficult to approach and photograph. We'd been there already this spring looking for dartford warblers but had failed even to fond them (the harsh winter had probably killed them off or they have displaced south and haven't returned). The former US airbase still has lots to offer though such as woodlark and tree pipits and later in the year nightjar.

With another hastily arranged day off Mrs Caley and I revisited the Greenham area but to a new part that we'd never been to before. Internet research had suggested a good place for nightingale with up to 4 singing males heard in the previous week. We parked the car, togged up, walked 50 yards down the first available path and immediately heard a nightingale in full song. Hallelujah! To my ears there is no better sound in the natural world and we walked carefully towards it. Nightingales are loud so even when you think that you're close to the bird it can still be quite a way ahead of you and so this bird proved. We eventually drew alongside it after another 100 yards or so of approach. Now the fun started. Nightingales don't like showing themselves to you. They give away their location by the song but it's usually broadcast from deep inside a bush or thick bramble patch and rarely do they perch openly higher up a tree. However if you're patient and resourceful you can normally get the reward of seeing the singing bird well. We edged closer to the patch of scrub that the bird was favouring and listened. It sang in bursts of 2-5 minutes but as per the books ("hard to see!") stayed hidden amongst the deep cover. We gauged its movements from one side of its territory to the other but for over an hour it remained totally concealed. I decided it would be a good idea to go around to the other side of the area where the bird sang from. Luckily there was a path going there too so we wouldn't be infringing on anywhere too sensitive. The bird began singing again but a little further away but this time I managed to spot it! Amazingly it was in the open but quite low down and that explained why we couldn't see it from the other side. Views were ok but the distance and intervening foliage made getting any images difficult although I did grab a few.

Singing from deep cover

From our new position we were able to get a better understanding of the birds movements and pinpointed its favourite singing spots but we still had difficulty in seeing it! Until after nearly 2 hours it perched up very briefly in one of the outermost trees, uttered a quick phrase and dropped back to the ground. Nightingales spend a lot of their time on the ground or low down under bramble thickets where they find their insectivorous food. While they are creeping around they utter a strange grating "krrrrr" sound which sounds a bit like a frog! Then they rise into song with a loud and clear "sseee, sseee......." before launching into a crescendo of notes that I've always likened to the space invaders arcade game! This particular bird was moving quickly from one thick patch of cover to another while singing continually. I spotted the bird again low down in a bramble and managed another couple of quick shots. 

The rich russet brown colour of the back

This was very hard work though so when a rain shower came through we decided to try our luck with the other two nightingales that we could hear singing close by. Despite one of this birds singing close to and from both sides of the access road we had no luck with those either! Trying to see nightingales can be incredibly frustrating! It was now over 3 hours since we'd arrived and despite hearing nightingales singing throughout that time we had only had 3 quick views and just a couple of photos to show for our efforts. We returned to the first bird and sat on a pile of rubble and listened to the bird singing away once again. It sounded as though it was just feet away but still invisible to us. Nightingales obviously enjoy this and I felt that it was having fun at our expense. No amount of scanning the dense undergrowth helped, I just couldn't find the bird. When the bird had gone quiet once again I rose from my seat at exactly the same time as the nightingale jumped up onto an exposed perch in the same outermost tree as before but higher up (although still only 4 feet off the ground) and burst into song. This time it stayed put and we had it, full views from 30 feet away and at last the chance to get some decent photos. Phew! 

At last!

You've got to love nightingales. Plain to look at but that song and the charisma surrounding it make it one of the best birds to see and certainly to hear. We'll come back again in the next fortnight to see them again before they disappear once more.

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