Thursday, 25 May 2017

Nightingales at Glapthorn

 by Amanda

Following on from Ros's evening listening to Nightingales, last week I found myself standing in the middle of a dark wood in drizzling rain, with boots soaked through to the socks, and with no idea which direction I'd entered the woods from and how I might be able to get out again. But that didn't matter - I was there to listen for Nightingales. Having never had the opportunity to hear their famed nightsong before, I wasn't about to let a little bit of rain stop me from getting the chance to listen to them at one of their yearly nesting sites. Nightingales sing around May to early June, so the window is short. Clad in hastily borrowed waterproof jacket and aforementioned unsuitable footwear, I joined Ros and a couple of other hopefuls for a dusk walk into the woodland at Glapthorn Cow Pastures near Oundle.

We arrived as the daylight was just beginning to fade. As we entered the woods, we were greeted with a symphony of birdsong. The trees rang with the bright songs of goodness knows how many species of bird, and it was very difficult to pick out one bird's song from another, especially for a novice like myself. After stopping to appreciate the sound for a while we moved on, reasoning that we might have a better chance of hearing the nightingales deeper in the woods.

Taking careful, quiet footsteps, we picked out a zigzagged pathway through the trees as the sky darkened, and the birdsong became sparser. We were collectively straining our ears for something that sounded that bit different - the rich, varied song that is so revered. The trouble was I had no real idea what I was listening for, other than knowing it ought to be something a bit special! My companions were a little more knowledgeable and so I trusted that they would recognise the tune of a Nightingale, once he made himself heard.

As we continued we heard snippets of what we thought might be Nightingales, but we could not be sure. The sound would come down from up the tallest trees as we stopped to listen, and we would only catch a few phrases, followed by a long silence that told us the bird had moved on. We stopped and started in this way for a good while, with me craning my head up towards the treetops in the hope I might see something. (As it turns out, all I saw were some crows and clumsy woodpigeons - Nightingales are secretive birds, and do not often allow themselves to be spotted.)

The fine rain had become a slightly heavier, persistent drizzle. My instinct was to put up my hood, but as soon as I did that I realised I couldn't hear much else other than my own boots in the grass. After a short while I took it down, deciding I'd rather get raindrops in my eyes and ears than risk muffling the sound of Nightingale song. As time went on we realised suddenly that all the birdsong had ceased. The woods had become completely silent.

Stepping gingerly, communicating only in occasional whispers, we carried on further into the eerily quiet woodland. And then we heard what we had been waiting for. Just as we were losing the last of the light, a single, clearly projected song came down from above; bursts of rapid and varied trills, with a rest between each phrase. We stopped to listen for a good five minutes before the bird moved on. From that point on we were treated several more times as we made our way through the darkness. The rain lent a lovely atmosphere to the evening; the gentle sound of light drops on the leaves above and the ground cover below a wonderful percussive accompaniment to the Nightingale's performance.

I have been working on a painting of a Nightingale which I have timed quite well - it is due to be completed very soon.
I'll share some pictures when it's done!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

An Evening with Nightingales

by Ros

A wonderful evening yesterday.

David, our friend Clare, me and another 20 people spent 7 hours at Grafham Water with Sam Lee (folk singer and Barbara Dickson (singer and actress learning about, talking, singing and listening to Nightingales. What a special time.

We met round a campfire, then went on an informative walk led by Sam, followed by a good meal back round the campfire, followed by dusk song from birds ending with the nightingales as the light faded. Then songs sung by Sam and Barbara and a few others which was followed by a walk into the woods to lie down on the dewy grass till 12.30am. We listening to a solo nightingale’s night song occasional accompanied by Sam through voice and the playing of his shruti box. Magical.

There are future opportunities to experience this, or similar – go to Sam’s website.

These special birds are in decline, but apparently not at Grafham Water.

Also can be heard nearer to Corby at the Cow Pastures near Glapthorne, Oundle.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Serenading the night

It's a bird that we've all heard of, and think we know, but the Nightingale is much harder to find than you might think. When you do, its looks are unprepossessing, as you'll see from the photo above, but its voice is like nothing else in British nature, a mixture of slow piping, high warbles, and full-throated, deep, throbbing phrases. Importantly, what it leaves out is just as important as what it puts in – the pauses in a Nightingale's song are as powerful as the sounds its makes, especially when heard in the middle of the night.

That habit of singing during the hours of darkness are what has made the Nightingale a victim of a case of mistaken identity. The much commoner Robin also does so, and it has a sweet enough song itself, so many people hearing one are convinced they've heard a Nightingale. But the real thing is louder, purer, and usually much more persistent – from when they arrive in mid-April, through until June, male Nightingales sing all night, and during large parts of the day as well, in an attempt to attract nearby females, or those passing overhead on their own migrations.

The UK is pretty much at the northern limit of its range, so it has rarely been found much further north than the Trent. It also requires very specific habitat – dense bushes down to ground level, best provided by coppiced shrubs like Sweet Chestnut and Hazel, or thickets of Bramble, Blackthorn and Wild Rose. Such habitat is often transitory, appearing for a year or two where a woodland or other site has been allowed to grow wild, then disappearing as a result of tidying up work, or simply the natural progression of habitat.

Around Corby, your only chance to find one is to come across a bird on migration, although there are several nearby sites where they breed – Thrapston Gravel Pits is by far the best and most regular, while King's Cliffe has also had breeding birds in the past. Listen out for this virtuoso of bird song, and you'll never forget your first encounter with one.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

The complications of migration

Walking around Corby in the last 10 days or so, the sweet song of the Blackcap has been much in evidence from gardens, parks and woodlands, along with the very similar song of the closely-related Garden Warbler.

The latter's song is just that bit more mellow and gentle, but even many experienced birdwatchers can struggle to tell them apart.

But there's one very major difference between the two species. Garden Warblers spend the winter in Africa, and arrive back in the UK in April. Blackcaps, on the other hand, often only migrate as far as Spain and Portugal during the winter months (birds ringed near Corby have been recovered in both countries), then return in March and April.

But more and more people are seeing Blackcaps during the winter, often visiting garden feeders. So, are these birds that have given up on migration?

Well, no. In fact, the evidence is that our breeding Blackcaps still head south for the winter, but are replaced in some areas by birds from Central Europe, especially Germany, who find our mild winters preferable to the much colder climate there. When spring arrives, they return to the Continent.

It's another example of how complicated migration is. Birds are always on the move, even around us is the woods and parks of Corby, without us necessarily noticing.

And if you want to see a Blackcap, look for a small, slightly plump, grey-brown bird with a black cap (male) or rufous brown cap (female). The song starts with a lot of chattering, before opening out into a pleasant, fluting warble.

Discovering birdsong

by Warren For the last few weeks I have been finding recordings of the songs of the ten birds online, and doing a lot of listening a...