Bird song (30) – Nightingale

Nightingale. Photo: Tim Melling

This date is the earliest I have heard a Nightingale in Northants but I won’t be hearing one this evening in lockdown. In any case, for the last couple of years the regular haunts near my home have been bereft of Nightingales.

My favourite Nightingale wood is Glapthorn Cow Pasture (a Beds, Cambs, Northants Wildlife Trust nature reserve which is, despite the name, a wood). I have visited that wood most springs for decades now; with my parents (and Dad died 23 years ago) and with my children when they regarded standing in a wood at 9pm as a ‘staying up late’ treat. And we have listened to Nightingales sing – without fail, every year from late April through May and June – but no more.

It’s not the least bit strange that Keats was inspired by this song; here are examples from France;

…and Belgium:

…and one from the UK:

Aren’t they superb? It’s slightly fashionable to dis the Nightingale as too obvious and flashy but it is a superb songster. Its song commands attention – those Nightingales in Glapthorn Cow pasture have commanded my attention for decades. As the light fades and the Robins, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes fall silent there is a brief period of overlap with the Nightingales as they start to sing but then the air is theirs, only interrupted by an occasional hooting owl, barking deer or a plane flying over. Darkling we listened.

Those short and varied phrases are the key to what makes the Nightingale’s song such a performance. It sings; it pauses, as if to let the listener fully appreciate the perfection that has just passed; it sings; it pauses; it sings; it pauses, and this goes on for many minutes. And each short phrase is unpredictable – it might be the characteristic chug-chug-chug, or a warbling melody, or a series of whistles, you just don’t know. Does the Nightingale know? The pauses make it seem as though it is choosing its next phrase – ‘What shall I sing next? I know – this!’.

In fact, if you were to record the performance of a male Nightingale night after night I vaguely remember that you would hear exactly the same performance – the same phrases following each other in the same order each night. That may take some of the lyricism out of it all (sorry) but it turns it from a performance of virtuosity into one of studied recollection. Recollection of near perfection.

I miss the Glapthorn Nightingales. Fled is that music.

Listen again:



25 Replies to “Bird song (30) – Nightingale”

  1. Mark – I genuinely think they are overrated. Loud, yes. Obvious, yes, because they often sing when everything else is quiet. The cachet of rarity, yes. But each short phrase is nothing special. They could do so much better if they strung a few phrases together or made them a bit longer and varied. It’s as if they have real talent but simply can’t be bothered. I’ve heard them at GCP in years gone by and lovely though they are, they’re not a patch on Blackbird and Robin.

    1. You’ve got a point there Ian. Yes, the bird could do better, especially when compared to the Wood Lark’s night time or daylight song. The trouble is that both species are far too rare.

  2. Utterly spellbinding, having lived most of my life in North Yorkshire this whilst a known song hardly familiar. The last one I heard in the UK was in East Norfolk probably 15 years ago during the day. We were working on a field project which involved lots of walking over each field and as we got to the end of this newly drilled potato fen peat field a Nightingale started to sing from a very thick scrubby hedge, the two of us just stood and listened ( you cannot not listen surely).
    Last year on a late spring visit to Alcantara in Spain I heard them every early morning laid in bed, a brilliant way to start a birding day. They seem less skulking there as we saw several singing from wires.
    The Sprosser is good to but not this good.

  3. I once heard one singing at the end of my road, in a very overgrown area by a pedestrian underpass off all places. This was possibly fifteen years or so ago.
    I remember just standing there for a good while listening to it sing its heart out.
    I’ve never heard one there again which is very sad.
    I also used to hear them regularly at my local wood but I don’t go there often anymore as the forestry work that has been done was very distressing to see. It’s an SSI and I really don’t understand how they have got away with the destruction they have caused.
    However, I think it’s about time I start frequenting the place again to see what I can find, or hear!

  4. We heard one at midday in a small nature reserve near Newport on the Isle of Wight. Standing next to a thick bramble patch, looking at each other, saying ‘What is that song?’ then the lightbulb moment ‘Of course, it’s a nightingale!’

  5. Yes another bird in serious decline and at least the old old phrase of all because of intensive farming never dragged out for this decline.
    So called intensive farming has faults but for sure these insect eaters including Swallows and Martins are in decline because of those tens of millions of vehicles on our roads doing tens of thousands of miles each per year,then of course the Aircraft pollution on top.
    What a pity conservationists have not the guts to own up to this problem.
    Just look at all the vehicles and Aircraft sitting idle now and the decline of these birds tally’s with the massive increase of the vehicle and Aircraft from about 1960.Love
    There just has to be some logic in this.

    1. It’ll not be pesticides then Dennis, as far as many insectivorous birds on farmland are concerned. Much more likely than traffic pollution.

      1. I’d be surprised if this disease kills as many people in the UK this year as die on our roads, but I might well be wrong. I may look foolish in future, but if so it won’t be the first time, and I’ll look even more foolish if I am one of those to die (but then looking foolish won’t be my biggest concern).
        Maybe nowhere near as this part of your blog,turns out a real April fool
        Talk about BIZARRE.
        Strikes me that it suits conservationists to ignore the damage they do and gain so called points by putting all the blame on farmers.
        Of course all this vehicle and Aircraft pollution has a massive effect on insect death.It is on record as killing many many human beings so anything smaller is bound to be affected worse
        Afraid the blog has developed into a bizarre collection of anti farming,pro labourites who work as a clique

        1. Dennis – no-one has blamed a farmer for anything in this post. You are a little fixated.

          1. No but no doubt that Nightingales becoming scarcer like lots of other insect eaters and conservationists never believe that all these polluting vehicles have any effect.Of course they do and the same people are quite happy to come out and blame intensive farming for all the causes of declining birds.
            While all this emphasis is on farming fault and ignoring the polluting vehicles then things will continue to get worse.
            I have actually come to the sad conclusion conservationist in general but not all are happy with declines continuing blaming farmers and frightened to voice concerns of pollution being part of the problem.
            Let’s face it conservation bodies actually get good income from members by kicking farmers.
            A true story really shows how conservationists may not really care.
            When approaching one top conservationist with the evidence of what good a smallish area of wild bird mixture would do by giving birds food for the winter and so being in a prominent position maybe he could persuade farmers to grow some.He was not impressed and his answer was young birds in spring needed insects.
            Now he was probably more intelligent than me but he certainly didn’t use it.
            Unless those mature birds survived the winter there would be no chicks and did he think that either maize or corn or any other crop would have more insects in it than a wild bird mixture.Nonsense.
            It is really frustrating enough to say I give up.

  6. It seems generally accepted that the Nightingale, along with many others, is suffering from the damage inflicted to the understory layer by browsing deer, especially Muntjac.
    It is quite concerning therefore that many stalkers will be unable to operate in the present crisis.
    However, of greater long term worry is the collapse in Venison prices
    paid by dealers, partly due to imports from New Zealand deer farms,
    but also, can you believe, pre- prepared venison products from CHINA.
    Many dealers are no longer taking the smaller species, Roe, Muntjac, and Water deer, the latter of which is predicted by some experts to make the spread of Muntjac seem pedestrian.
    Insist on British wild shot venison ,you know it makes sense.

    1. I won’t buy New Zealand Lamb or butter and see absolutely no reason to buy their venison either or that from China. Its called unnecessary food miles and there may be all sorts of other reasons associated with meat from China.

    2. There is a lot more variation in the song of the Thrush Nightingale which we have here in Sweden.
      In Malmö where I live we have a local one which sings powerfully by the traffic lights and another by the nearby park ponds, although they haven’t returned yet.

    3. Trapit – it would make more sense if British venison were labelled as lead-free – or didn’t need to be labeled because it was all lead free. Almost all of the meat in my freezer is venison from a trusted source and guaranteed shot with non-toxic bullets.

      It was over a decade ago that the RSPB carried out tests of non-toxic bhullets for deer culling at Abernethy and, as a result, taking into account the views of the staff involved, switched away from lead bullets. So it’s not as though everyone else wierlding a rifle hasn’t had the chance to catch up.

      1. True, it would help, things are moving at a pace, though obviously not fast enough for some.
        It would also help, if people who have changed, or are thinking of changing to vegetarianism
        because of intensive farming methods , could munch on a muntjac occasionally.

  7. Yes, they’re superb! Thank you again Mark; I have been looking forward to the Nightingale song blog . Appropriately elegiac too – both for this moment and in acknowledgement of their long term decline. Not many Nightingales in these parts (well none, actually) and like Paul my best encounters have been abroad – in Portugal and Morocco – and I have always found their song thrilling.

    As with the Cuckoo, the Nightingale seems to me a cultural symbol of fundamental significance and if we can’t hang on to these two species in particular, it will reflect very badly on us. Imagine a world where the song of either was missing . Terrible.

  8. Is the song of a nightingale melancholy? Age-old tradition says yes, but Coleridge disagrees:
    “‘Most musical, most melancholy’ bird!
    A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!
    In nature there is nothing melancholy.”
    But when Keats picks up the theme, it seems that it is the very vivacity of the song that prompts melancholy in us mere mortals.

  9. My first and pretty much only nightingale was heard while walking at Little Paxton Pits one warm summer evening with colleagues when I worked for a large bird charity. The charity was large, not the bird. I used to visit The Lodge a few times a year from Scotland and had the pleasure of staying with colleagues who became friends.

    Hearing even a recording brings back such lovely memories of those evenings. We did on a few occasions see hobby hunting over the trees.

    No chance of nightingale up here in Perthshire, and only a slim chance of hobby so I love hearing nightingale recordings. Hoopoe is a bonus too!

  10. At least 16-18 nightingale territories in one small patch in Cambridgeshire this year. That is a threefold increase on that same area in any previous year since I started birding in the 1990s. Is it a coincidence that airplane pollution was absent during the whole period of migration? Anywhere else with similar good news?

  11. Why has my comment disappeared? Has it not been approved? If so, why not?

    Will you please reply to my email address.

    Thank you.

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