Famed throughout history due to its melodious call, May is the time to listen out for the nightingale - and the cuckoo too. The Wildlife Trusts offer great places to see and hear two of Britain's most fascinating birds
No bird can sing like the nightingale. Its famous song is indeed of high quality, with a fast succession of high, low and rich notes that few other species can match. Arriving in April, the bird sings its melodies throughout the night and day until late May and early June.
Around the size of the robin, nightingales are shy, often resting in dense scrub. Sadly, census data has shown that nightingale numbers have strongly declined in recent decades. Causes of decline include habitat loss to grazing roe and muntjac deer, which have reduced the density of shrubs much needed by nightingale.
A well-known indication of spring, the arrival of the dove-sized cuckoo in Britain is eagerly awaited each April.
The familiar call 'cuck-oo, cuck-oo' is imitated by the common name; which later on in the year is followed by the females 'bubbling' call.
During their summer visits, female cuckoos often lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, allowing the mother birds - particularly of dunnocks, pipits and reed warblers - to raise their young.
Where to go...
Ballynhone Bog (Ulster Wildlife Trust)
Northern Ireland's second largest area of intact raised bog, Ballynhone bog supports a rich diversity of wildlife including an incredible range of bog flora. The bog and surrounding birch woodland is very rich in birds including cuckoos, curlew, skylark, song thrush and reed bunting.
The site is also important for dragonflies and butterflies, including the biggest known colony of the large heath butterfly in Northern Ireland. All of the region’s amphibians and reptiles can be found here including the likes of the common lizard and smooth newt.
Clouts Wood (Wiltshire Wildlife Trust)
Clouts Wood offers spring walks that are full of surprises – mossy gnarled boles contorted into fantastic shapes, marshy areas, hollowed trunks, running water and tumbled bridges. Most trees here are between 50 – 100 years of age, although some oaks are as much as 200 years old.
Visit to hear the calling of the cuckoo and the patter of foxes, badgers and squirrels. Fascinating flora includes the nettle-leaved bellflower, bath asparagus (also known as the spiked star of Bethlehem) and stump puffball.
Bough Beech Visitor Centre (Kent Wildlife Trust)
An important staging post for migrating birds during the spring and autumn, Bough Beech is one of the most celebrated and visited bird watching sites in the south east. Regular appearances include the osprey, grey heron, little egret and little ringed plover.
Both the call of the cuckoo and the nightingale can be adored here, while the surrounding grounds are great for spotting toads, dragonflies and great crested newts.
Grafham Water SSSI (The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire)
Grafham Water SSSI is loaded with spring delights – the melodic song of the nightingale and the spring chorus of the garden warbler and nightcap. Also making use of the reservoir includes the common sandpiper, greenshank and the rare red-throated diver. With nine miles of shoreline, and around 170 species of bird recorded each year, there is always something to see.
Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows (The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire)
Lying at the heart of the Nene Valley, Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows is one of the most important wetlands in England and an internationally important stop-over for thousands of wildfowl and waders.
Bordering the River Nene, the site is home to wintering golden plover, wigeon and gadwall, while in spring it resounds with the songs of cuckoos, nightingales and warblers. Around the river and lakes, fragments of precious meadows survive, awash with fragrant meadowsweet and common spotted orchids.
Woods Mill (Sussex Wildlife Trust)
This flagship environmental education reserve for Sussex is perfect for hearing the melodic song of the nightingale. Providing a peaceful setting, comprising coppice woodland, meadows and a large reed-fringed pond, the reserve is also home to woodpeckers, warblers, turtle doves and dragonflies. Admission to the reserve is free of charge. Facilities include a car park, toilets and a disabled path around the reed fringed pond which passes through nightingale territory. Sussex Wildlife Trust is hosting a series of nightingale events across its reserves.
Fingringhoe Wick (Essex Wildlife Trust)
Fingringhoe Wick is set in a spectacular position overlooking the Colne Estuary, a few miles south-east of Colchester, in north Essex. It is a wildlife haven, with diverse habitats attracting hundreds of different bird species and wild flowers. The jewel in its crown, however, is the nightingale.
Fingringhoe Wick is arguably the best place in the country to hear nightingales. In late April and early May, it hosts the astonishing sound of dozens singing their hearts out at full throttle, with 30-40 males singing each year.
Essex Wildlife Trust is running evening Nightingale Walks every day until Saturday 10 May. Nightingale walks are extremely popular and places are limited. Spaces are still available on most walks this year; please call 01206 729678 for more information.
Other Essex Wildlife Trust nature reserves where, among others, you can hear nightingales, include Abberton Reservoir, Copperas Wood, Cockaynes Wood and Stanford Warren.
Whibsy Nature Park (Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust)
This landscape, once barren and lifeless, now abounds with life including the soothing song of the nightingale. Created by quarrying for sand and gravel, Whisby Nature Park has reclaimed the landscape of pits and bare sand. In spring and summer, flocks of tits and finches are joined by warblers. The lakes attract feeding sand martins and swallows, and terns nest on the islands. Chiffchaffs, reed and sedge warblers can be heard.
Whisby Nature Park has become famous for nightingales. With patience and good fieldcraft they can show exceptionally well at Whisby, with singing males being the most frequent form of observation. Unlike the national trend of the nightingale, currently, the species population remain stable at Whisby. The removal of diseased Corsican Pine and the subsequent planting of native trees and shrubs, combined with natural regeneration, appear to be providing suitable habitat. Whisby Nature Park is hosting two guided walks this year.
Gilfach Nature Reserve (Radnorshire Wildlife Trust)
Gilfach is a brilliant reserve to hear cuckoo calling. For the more adventurous, Tylcau Hill (Flossie Brand) is also great and you also stand a good chance of seeing them here. Both male and female cuckoo have thrilled visitors, two springs running, calling from a tree or perched on the wires. Other birds include redstart, linnet and pied flycatcher. Butterflies and moths include the small pearl-bordered fritillary, green hairstreak and the brightly coloured scarlet tiger moth.
Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve (Warwickshire Wildlife Trust)
Cuckoos are present at this nature reserve, near Coventry. They can be seen and heard all over it. The wildflower meadow here is full of cowslips in spring but is at its best in midsummer, when ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and knapweed add a fine splash of colour. A pond provides a breeding site for frogs, toads and smooth newts. Along the attractive woodland walk, birds such as jay, bullfinch and blackcap may be seen.
Trinity Broads (Norfolk Wildlife Trust)
Read about Ken the cuckoo before you visit Trinity Broads. Ken is the famous cuckoo, named after Ken Saul, a long standing volunteer who has been active on Burgh Common for 30 years. 'Ken' was caught last summer and had a tracking tag fitted to help understand all aspects of the cuckoo’s annual cycle before we can begin to suggest what might be driving the decline.
Whilst the cuckoo has been well studied during the breeding season here in the UK, once they head off on migration very little was known about the routes they take or where in Africa they spent the winter months. There has only been one recovery of a young bird that was found in mid-winter in Cameroon and that was 82 years ago. If we can pinpoint areas of importance then we can look at whether there are pressures there which could explain the losses of the British cuckoo.
Highgate Common Nature Reserve (Staffordshire Wildlife Trust)
Cuckoos are aplenty on Highgate Common, an ancient lowland heath near Wombourne in the West Midlands. Buzzing with rare wildlife, this lowland heath is home to 5,000 different types of insects ranging from dragonflies, rare glow worms, countless beautiful butterflies, beetles, wasps and bees.
If insects just aren’t your thing, don’t worry! Highgate Common’s heathland is also home to Grass Snakes, Common Lizards and Slow Worms! The heathland is also visited by wonderful bird species including the cuckoo, yellow hammer, tree pipit and skylark.
Emsworthy Nature Reserve (Devon Wildlife Trust)
Cuckoos are heard in May at Emsworthy nature reserve. A lovely reserve, the small internal fields are defined by dry stone walls and contain a wet valley mire and stream. Toads, frogs and adders are abundant within the lower and upper mire areas, while the wet areas also attract a number of dragonfly and damselfly species. Barn owls have often been spotted at Emsworthy, while cuckoos, tree pipits and stonechats together, deliver a spring chorus.
Glapthorn Cow Pastures (The Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs & Northants)
Glapthorn Cow Pastures is an important nesting site for cuckoos and this Wildlife Trust is offering the opportunity to enjoy an evening listening to nightingales in this beautiful nature reserve, on Thurs 8 May. Three or four pairs usually breed in the reserve and can be heard singing during May and June. Many other birds breed here especially warblers and maybe nuthatches.
A spring visit in the early evening maybe rewarded with the sight and sound of male woodcock roding overhead and uttering their characteristic calls as it becomes dark.
Paxton Pits (The Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs & Northants)
On Friday 18 April, a cuckoo was heard singing on the meadow trails at Paxton Pits – a visitor centre great for getting close to local wildlife. Spot wildfowl in the winter and nightingales in the spring, and if you are very lucky you might even see an otter. The Great Fen also offers opportunities to see and hear these enigmatic birds.
For more information about how you can eavesdrop on a nightingale, click here.