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My First Nightingale

Posted: Wednesday 24th May 2017 by TheWildlifeTrustsBlogger

David Tipling 2020 Vision

Melissa Harrison spent three years trying to hear the elusive nightingale. Finally with Essex Wildlife Trust's help, she struck gold.

Three years ago I realised I’d never heard a nightingale, and wanted to put it right.


There’s one!’ says Charlie, almost as soon as we get out of the car. He looks at me, smiling, one finger aloft. I freeze and listen: surely it can’t be as easy as that? But if one was singing distantly it’s stopped now, and after a moment I zip up my coat, shoulder my binoculars and put on my gloves. We’re at Fingringhoe Wick, near Colchester, on a cold spring evening. Essex Wildlife Trust’s Charlie Oliver has promised me nightingales – my first ever – and while I’m looking forward to hearing them, of course, it’s a complicated feeling. I caught a packed train here from central London after a long day at work and now I’m worried that the sound won’t live up to the hype I’ve been absorbing about them all my life.

We begin to walk up the track. The hawthorn is coming into bloom and the wood to our right is a froth of spring green; the sky is clearing to apricot, the sun low and golden.

Three years ago I realised I’d never heard a nightingale, and wanted to put it right. Bookham Common, in Surrey, reportedly had several; it was also somewhere I knew well. But it was too late for me to hear them that year. The following spring I had another go. The common was loud with song thrushes, blackbirds, robins, blackcaps and warblers, but I didn’t hear anything that sounded like the nightingales I’d listened to online.

I went twice more and still drew a blank. The brief window passed, for the males fall silent as soon as they have attracted a mate. Last year I tried again; numbers had reportedly fallen to a single singing male at Bookham, but I couldn’t find him. I tried nearby Capel, a private reserve whose numbers were up, and tried to persuade myself I’d heard a ‘jug-jug-jug’ in the distance, but I couldn’t be sure.

At one time, the song of a nightingale was so familiar to people in the south-east as to be ubiquitous. Now, as we continue along the broad track, I wonder whether in 100 years people will go on pilgrimages to hear blackbirds or robins. I hope not.

We’re not half way to the visitor centre when we begin to hear them: first one, then another, away among the trees. Even at a distance the sound is easy to distinguish from other birdsong, with an uncanny quality that no recording can capture. “The best notes of other birds... come distinctly from the point where the bird utters them, and seem to reach and terminate at the listener’s ear,” wrote Sir Edward Grey in 1927. “But the supreme notes of the nightingale envelop and surround us: so that we lose perception of the point whence they proceed: it is as if we were included and embraced in pervading sound.”

Our faces are joy-struck, lit from within by the birds’ liquid, ventriloquial recital. When we move on, I follow reluctantly; surely we should stay and hear more? But I needn’t worry: this beautiful site yields more, even closer and clearer, for there are around 30 males here and more yet to arrive. At last, in a thicket by the mudflats of the wide River Colne, we find one only be a few feet away, spilling out vivid, liquid phrases completely unconcerned by us.

As dusk fell, female birds were doubtless listening, assessing the parenting potential of competing males. But to me, the song’s meaning was more ineffable: loaded with myth and legend, and a bittersweet reminder of a wildlife-rich world we must not let slip away.

Melissa Harrison is a wildlife writer and author.


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