Early spring is a wonderful time of year – the long, cold winter is behind us, there is a tangible sense of awakening and wildlife starting to stir.
Wildflowers such as bluebells, daisies and cowslips have emerged while insect life starts to make an appearance. In particular, the sight of butterflies lifts the spirit – the yellow brimstones and multi-coloured peacocks that have come out of hibernation, and the orange tips jockeying along at waist height, having recently cast off their pupae.
Birdsong is also turned up a notch or three, as males of different species sing out loudly to advertise their suitability as a mate.
There was certainly a chorus of willing suitors as we walked around Cornard Country Park last Friday evening. The deep-throated melody of the blackbird seemed everywhere, complemented by the higher pitched cheeping of the robin, and the vigorous trill of the wren. By far the loudest song we could hear was the piercing screech of the song thrush, while the distinctive cooing of the wood pigeon could also be made out.
But we had come to listen out for one bird in particular – the nightingale. We had been told that one had been heard in the park and were hoping to get lucky. I heard one or two bars of song that I thought were made by a nightingale, but it was not until light had almost disappeared around half past eight and the other songs had dissipated, that the nightingale let rip and left us in no doubt of its presence.
As we stood there and listened to its full range of gurgles, staccatos and bubbling whistles, we were reminded why this bird is regarded as the songster above all others. We were the sole audience to a magical composition, extraordinary in its volume and variety of sounds. It mattered not that we could not see the bird. Its song was more than enough.
Our singer was hidden in deep scrub of brambles, hawthorn and nettles – one of its favoured habitats, offering protection from predators where it can make a safe nest low near the ground. Cornard Country Park is managed by Sudbury Common Land Charity rangers who have purposely left small areas to scrub over in the hope that they will provide shelter for wildlife. To hear a nightingale singing from the depths of one such patch was melodious proof that if you create the right habitat, wildlife will come.
And we could not help thinking of the journey that this individual must have made to end up in our corner of Suffolk. Nightingales winter in humid West Africa before heading north into Europe during the summer months. On the Continent there are millions of nightingales, but the British Isles are at the far northern reaches of its range, and it is estimated only around five thousand birds arrive on our shores every year, keeping solely to the south-east of England.
Another reason why so few nightingales settle in England each year is because the scrub habitat that they seek is less plentiful than it used to be. These days leaving land to scrub over is seen as wasteful, but it is in fact extremely important habitat for not just nightingales but also for species such as yellowhammers, thrushes and dormice, to name but a few.
The last time I had heard a nightingale was several years back at Fingringhoe Wick, an RSPB reserve on the Colne estuary east of Colchester, where a number of males had touched down in search of a partner. As there were several birds, the singing became ever louder and more complex as the males competed.
Whenever I hear a nightingale, I think of how, over the centuries, humans have been bewitched by their song to the point of capturing them and putting them into small cages. In Roman times, some of the best singing birds could fetch as much as the price of a slave. During the Victorian era, fashionable Londoners would keep nightingales behind bars. Apparently, birds were driven mad by their entrapment, battering themselves against their cages until they died.
No other bird has inspired poets like the nightingale. Most famously, the Romantic John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ encapsulated the mixed emotion of hearing beautiful birdsong – the feeling of joy at its beauty but at the same time a sensation of melancholy at its transient fragility.
To hear a ‘dryad of the trees’ in good voice, free in Cornard Country Park, was a truly memorable experience.
Visit the new-look website sudburycommonlands.org for more articles about local wildlife.
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity