Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Have you ever heard a nightingale?

Nightingales will be here soon. I wrote this for "The Buckden Roundabout". 

Have you ever heard a nightingale sing? If not, have you ever wondered what all the fuss is about? Poets and writers go on and on about nightingales and it’s always about the song and the mix of melancholy and joy that it arouses in us.

It’s hardly worth describing the actual bird. You probably won’t see one because they hide among the leaves, and even when you do see one, there isn’t much to write home about; it looks like a robin in a sepia photograph, or a small thrush without spots, which is exactly what it is.

So, it’s all about the song. Nightingales arrive in the UK from West Africa in the first half of April. The males come first and they sing their hearts out, day and night, to attract any passing female but it might be mid May before they have all settled down to nest. A male with a family will continue to sing at night, but less often in daytime, while an unmated male just keeps on singing until it gets hungry. And what a song it is. It has the rich tone of a song thrush but, instead of repeating every phrase it keeps coming up with new ones. The most recognisable part of the song is an insistent seep-seep-seep-seep on one note that starts very quietly then builds and builds until it explodes into a whole song jammed into less than two seconds. There is also a lower pitched jug-jug-jug call and a rattle.

Alright, it doesn’t sound that great does it? That’s because I just can’t capture it in writing and that has been the challenge for writers and poets down the ages. The joy and wonder bit comes from the sheer virtuosity of the bird, but there is also suspense. The song is composed of long and short phrases with silences in between. There is no better way to get your attention than by starting to say something and then pausing for effect and it works even better in a song. You never know how long the pause will be; just a beat, a whole bar or even a whole verse? Or has the bird gone off somewhere else?

The melancholy component is interesting too. All musicians know that a sad song, such as a dirge or even a blues number, has to be in a minor key. Imagine a Miles Davis (right) solo played on a flute and you are getting close.

I hope that, by now, I’ve peaked your interest enough for you to ask, “Where can I go to hear a nightingale?”

Most English nightingales (they don’t occur in Wales or Scotland) are found in Kent and the South East. If you draw a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash, that’s roughly the northern limit for these summer birds (see BTO Atlas map, left).  We live right on the north-west edge of their range in Europe, but we have a few good sites on our doorstep. Paxton Pits Nature Reserve holds 25 to 30 pairs in a good year and a visit in May has become an annual pilgrimage for bird-lovers from all over the UK. There are nightingales at Graham Water and at Castor Hanglands, up beyond Peterborough.

As for timing, you can hear them day or night, but just before dawn is best or just after sunset. This is because these are the times of day when almost all of the males will be singing, and because most other birds won’t be.

If you want to know more, visit the Paxton Pits Website where you can learn more about nightingales and hear a recording too. You can also find out about our spring time events by going to