Every year we look forward to hearing Nightingales sing. Listening to their rich and varied song is definitely one of the avian delights of the spring.
We used to have Nightingales in a woodland close to home in North Oxfordshire but sadly they've been absent for some years now owing to range contraction. There may be a pair or two still clinging on in the out of bounds MOD areas locally but they will also succumb soon because of the mass sell-off of the old depot to make room for yet more housing (or rather to garner more unneeded cash for our poor off rich folk and government). So these days we have to travel into a neighbouring county for our Nightingale fix, and to places where they are still present in good numbers. Whereas we used to travel north eastwards to Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire the numbers of Nightingales there are falling too so for the last few years our destination has been Berkshire and the woods and commons in the Kennet valley where good numbers of singing males survive still. Apparently Nightingales are fussy birds preferring richly vegetated scrubby ground with lots of nettles and bramble thickets for feeding and safe nesting. The explosion in the Deer population has often been blamed for the decline in Nightingale numbers but I think the contraction is far more likely to have been driven because of the (supposedly) insatiable demand for more housing which impacts massively on the habitat that the Nightingales prefer. Where better to stick another thousand houses, four thousand people, two thousand cars and another few thousand cats and dogs than on what appears to be an untidy wasteland around a load of old gravel pit workings. Unfortunately birds and other wildlife don't often get a look in and are largely ignored.
Nightingale "day" for us was always around St. George's Day but recently we've noticed that they return a week or so earlier. Last year we got our fix on the 16 April (see here) but although we saw a few, there was little singing and it seemed that the birds were still "settling in". So this year we held off until Saturday before taking the hour drive to a favourite spot of ours, and it was a fine sunny morning which is always a bonus. We could hear a Nightingale in full song as soon as we opened the car doors. The bird was joined in song by another as we geared up. Both birds were fairly close by too so it shouldn't take long to pin one of them down. But as anybody who has listened to Nightingales will know, locating the actual bird can be extremely difficult owing to the birds preference to sing while remaining concealed in a dense bush or thicket. Typically as we began our walk both birds had stopped performing but one of them started singing again as we neared a gate that allowed for a better view into the understory. The bird wasn't particularly close but incredibly was in full view and we couldn't believe our luck in finding it so quickly. It had taken us less than five minutes to add the species to our year list.
|Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)
We walked to a territory that we discovered last year. The Nightingale there favours a dense bramble entangled bush that sits between two paths. We found the bird twelve months ago because it was the only one singing full pelt, and this time it (I like to think it was the same bird returning) was again singing heartily. We spent a good hour trying to pin it down last year with only brief flight views of it for the most part. And once again, this bird proved hard to actually see despite it singing almost constantly. A couple of times we were duped by a Cetti's Warbler which shouted it's own staccato rhythm from within the same bush. When the Cetti's broke cover I followed it and quickly fired off some shots, thinking wrongly that it was the Nightingale. Of course I knew that it wasn't, the two birds are completely different shades of brown for one thing and a Nightingale is a size or two larger, but when a bird flies rapidly out of dense cover it's a natural reaction to follow it. It's always good to see a Cetti's in any event.
|Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)
We concentrated on studying the bramble thicket knowing that the Nightingale was in it somewhere. After a while we worked out the bird's routine and began to pick it out within the foliage. It favoured a certain perch from which to belt out its song but that position was obscured by many twigs and leaves. Sometimes the only visible sign of it was the quivering of its tail or pulsating of the throat as it sang. It was hard work trying to get a view of it and even harder to gain any images.
However, I noticed that whenever somebody approached the Nightingale territory from one of the two paths then it would shift right to the opposite edge of the bushes and show in a slightly less densely vegetated area. So we set up our stall on the opposite path and waited for someone to walk past, and when they did we took our chance and finally had a decent view of the bird which, although sensitive enough to the passer-by to move its own position, carried on singing regardless so we always knew it was still there.
That bird was taking too much time to see, and there were only a few other folk walking around to entice it out of its hiding place so we decided to give up on it and go back to the road and try to find the other singing birds again. We could hear at least two Nightingales as we walked and the bird we saw earlier was still in the same area as before. We were around fifty metres away from our parked car and soon found the original bird again although it was a way into the wood and it wasn't easy to find a camera line through the leaves and branches.
The Nightingale was singing in tandem with another bird that appeared to be near the car. For a while it was like "duelling banjos" with each bird taking turns to shout. The bird we were tracking was slowly nearing the other and we followed. The wood was less dense at this point with just a few large trees growing over many slender saplings that reached for the light above. It was quite easy to pinpoint the Nightingale whenever it stopped and sang and I took many photos. For the first ninety minutes of the session, I took maybe thirty frames. Now I was probably shooting that many every minute or two.
And then our luck really improved. The two singing birds had encroached close enough to each other for sparring to take place. We saw one bird chase the other through the trees, over our car and into the bushes on the other side of the path. I saw it perch up briefly on a low branch and then another Nightingale ousted it back over to the trees right by the car, and where we now stood. This bird, presumably "our" bird from before then perched less than twenty feet away and went into full song mode and stayed singing for a good five minutes or so. This was a full territorial dispute between two (or maybe even three) birds.
For the next fifteen minutes or so the singing, and seemingly victorious Nightingale remained in the trees above our car. The photo opportunities were endless. These were the best and closest views that we'd had since a time when Nightingales were more numerous and far more showy, and when we used to visit Paxton Pits to see them.
The Nightingale was also catching flies, snatching them almost between phrases. A telegraph pole festooned with barbed wire became a focus of its attention and the Nightingale spent quite a bit of time there hunting out its lunch. We were secreted behind our car and the bird was apparently oblivious of our presence. Having a mirrorless and silent camera was also undoubtedly a big aid in us staying unobtrusive.
The Nightingale continued to sing as well, usually in competition with the bird on the opposite side of the road. We couldn't see that one so stayed focused on the bird in front of us, and why not, one should never look a gift Nightingale in the beak!
The Nightingale gave us one more prolonged view when it hopped onto a loftier branch almost directly over our heads, showing so closely that we could see every shudder of its body made with the effort of pouring forth its song. It was incredible to witness the bird at such close quarters.
Finally the bird gave up and returned to the wood. My arms were aching from holding the camera aloft for so long. Not that I was complaining. It had been inexperience that would likely never be bettered.
Year List addition;