Early morning mist still clings to the depressions in the gently undulating landscape of the Brecks. Trees on the slight ridges rise above a sea of opaque white, that is tinged pink and orange by the morning sun, like island mirages. Driving through this foggy landscape, one moment the scenery stretches out on either side, the next the walls of mist close in. It is a landscape that is a patchwork of open heath, dense forest and planted fields. Having passed through Thetford Forest, and coming closer to our destination, the fields begin to dominate. On arrival the mist has thinned, lingering in a only a few hollows. Here the fields are a collage of squares, some with rich dark soil recently tilled, others with swathes of white fleecing covering recently planted vegetables, or lines of yellowing cover crop with rows of fresh green plants between and orderly lines of brilliant green salad, vibrant against the black soil. Surrounding these fields are hedgerows and trees that are beginning to fill out with spring leaves. The farm is waking, birds call and sing from the hedges and trees, hares run across the fields and huge tractors rumble up and down the paved tracks.
Our destination is an elevated reservoir, surrounded by tall trees at the base of which is a tangle of scrub and bushes. Mist swirls off its surface, which ripples as coot paddle across the water, squabbling when their neighbours get too close. A reed warbler sings in the tiny patches of reed just taking hold at its edges. On the bank and sloping sides of the reservoir, the grass is wet with dew droplets glinting in the morning sun. From the melee of scrub, nettles, fallen branches and bushes at the bottom of the slope comes the morning song of numerous birds. Blackcap, wren, robin and recently arrived whitethroat. Then, floating across the morning air, comes the sublime notes of one of Britain’s most famous birds. Its lilting, beautiful song is well known and often quoted in literature and poetry. A metaphor for love and beauty that has inspired poets, playwrights and novelists for hundreds of years.
The bird is of course the nightingale.
It is indeed a song of the highest quality. A succession of high and low notes, powerful, melodious, with a loud whistling crescendo. The nightingale has a rich and varied repertoire of over 1000 different sounds. Compare that to 340 sounds made by skylarks and 100 by blackbirds.
The name nightingale means ‘night songstress’ in Anglo-Saxon, and comes from the bird’s inclination to sing during the night as well as the day. It is thought to be unpaired males who sing at night in the hope of serenading a migrating female.
Nightingales have become a scarce bird in Britain, declining by 90% in the last 50 years, and are now restricted to the south east of the country. They are secretive, hiding in the middle of impenetrable bushes or thickets, and are often difficult to see.
Tagging projects, including those run by the BTO, are looking to understand the factors driving the decline of this iconic bird, both here on their breeding grounds and in their African wintering areas. Such research has fed into management plans for maintaining the right mixture of ages of suitable habitat. This farm in Norfolk is one example of land managers taking and using this advice to maintain nightingales on the site.
My story with nightingale’s began almost at the same time as Wild Barley. One of my very first blog posts was about a bird ringing trip to The Gambia in 2011. During the trip I encountered many West African species of birds but also many migrant Western Palearctic birds on their wintering grounds, including my first encounter with a nightingale. When I returned to The Gambia in 2014 I was fortunate enough to again catch a nightingale.
It would however be seven years from that first encounter in 2011 before I would see one in the UK. Summer 2018, and on a bird watching trip to Minsmere in Suffolk I saw my first UK nightingale. Almost a year later and I finally had an adult male nightingale in my hand, in the UK. While generally seen as rather plain, nondescript, brown colour with all the emphasis on their beautiful song, the nightingale to me is a subtly stunning bird. Yes, it was predominantly brown and creamy buff, but that tail in the spring sunshine shone a reddish brown that made my heart sing.