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.

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