This is a longer post than most, but it’s about a chance meeting with a bird ringer that had a big effect on me.
I went up at around 11am to see if nightingales were singing during the day in the forest past Boars Hill Farm. There was one singing as I arrived, and while I was standing on the track with my camera a man who looked dressed for the countryside appeared in the distance walking towards me. I’m always a bit nervous of confrontations in that part of the forest, even on a public bridleway – the local shooters are notoriously unwelcoming to walkers. But as he got nearer he appeared friendly and I saw that he had a Rockingham Forest Bird Ringers Group badge on his jumper. Hanging round his neck were four cloth bags, each containing a tiny live bird – you could see their gentle movements through the fabric.
I said “What a lovely sound”, nodding towards the nightingale, which was deep in some scrub. He replied, “You’ll be lucky to get a photo though!” I could only agree – they are always a shy bird and I’ve only got a single good image of one in all the years I’ve been trying. We got talking and walked slowly along the track towards a clearing where a net was hanging between two wooden posts, like a long badminton net reaching to the ground. It was designed to catch birds without harming them, and was placed in that spot specifically to catch a nightingale. A decoy sound was playing on an mp3 player, which I disagree with when photographers stress birds just to get an image. But he was involved in conservation work – definitely on the side of the angels.
It turned out he’s a volunteer working under the guidance of the British Trust for Ornithology, and the idea is to prove that there is a large enough group of nightingales here to persuade the Forestry Commission not to clear the dry undergrowth they need to thrive. I’ve heard four nightingales singing there so far this year – he had heard a couple more. Some years they will get into double figures, which is a lot these days for a bird near the limits of its northern range after flying all the way from Africa.
There is no shortage of nightingales on the continent, but the numbers that make it to this side of the channel are dwindling. The biggest strongholds are Kent and Sussex. Even 20 years ago there were only 4,500 singing males each year in England – there will be a lot less now. The ones singing in this relatively small patch of forest in Northamptonshire represent a significant part of one percent of the national total.
I’m attracted to nightingale song because of my musical interests and a fascination with sounds of all kinds. The birds rarely show themselves, so there is something magical and unworldly about this huge and virtuosic sound coming from deep in a thicket, especially at night when the rest of the world is silent. I’ve recorded the sounds and listened to them over and over, and it’s clear that they never repeat the exact same calls. There’s always an embellishment aimed at impressing a female or outperforming a rival male. Often they will sing against each other, trading phrases and trying to better each other through direct imitation.
So for me the experience of nightingales is mostly to do with the sounds and the emotions they evoke. But as we talked it became clear that this man had caught and ringed many of the birds I had listened to. He had actually handled them, had felt their heartbeats and enjoyed a closeness I would never have dreamt of. He caught the adults at the beginning of the season, and at the end he would try to catch the new juveniles too. He knew that the nightingale I had been listening to earlier had produced at least three young last year because he had personally ringed them all!
To me that was breathtaking, something I would never have imagined. I’d heard that nightingales return to where they were born after flying thousands of miles to Africa and back, but he actually knew that because he had only once caught a bird that had been originally ringed any distance away, and that was no further than Rutland Water. There was a spot just inside the wood at the top of the path from Southwick that always had a singing nightingale every year until a couple of years ago. It turns out he had ringed that bird in 2011 and caught the very same one there every year for seven years!
This was beginning to put a completely different spin on things I had tried to work out for myself. Now I understood that the fact that there was no longer a singing bird at that spot near Southwick, or anywhere else for that matter, might not be because of degraded habitat – it could just be the result of one bird dying naturally of old age. And as that particular bird had always sung right through the night for the whole season (paired up males mostly just sing at dawn and dusk) then maybe it had been unlucky in love and hadn’t left any young to follow in its wingbeats.
While we were talking the artificial decoy song was playing and a real nightingale would occasionally answer with a song or a growl from a thicket close by. The net was set up to catch him if he made a dash across the clearing, but when he finally appeared he flew right round it and disappeared into the bushes on the far side. This had been going on since 6 am – it was now 12.30 and time to call it a day. What a wonderful way to spend time in the woods at the very best time of year!
He had caught other birds earlier on in a net further down the track, including three grasshopper warblers which are also considered to be rare. A couple of times he had even caught kingfishers here in the woods, a long way from a stream of any substance. There were two nightingales singing either side of us now, and a turtle dove calling nearby, one of the rarest summer migrants of all. Plenty to be going on with, but the quest to actually handle a nightingale, to ring it or check the ring it already had, would have to wait for another day.
As I walked the mile or so back to the car, through a remote and slightly eerie landscape that could be straight out of an HE Bates novel, it seemed like the world had shifted slightly on its axis. I’m used to revealing encounters deep in the woods with birds and animals. A meeting with someone who could add so many pieces to the jigsaw of my knowledge and understanding of nightingales was totally unexpected and truly special. Nightingales had been singing during the day as I’d hoped when I went up there – that much I could be sure of. But did the rest of it actually happen? I wouldn’t be surprised to wake up and find I’d dreamt the whole thing…