Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.

Nightingale image by Rob Zweers, CC BY-ND 2.0

So much has already been written about this iconic bird, hailed by many as the worlds greatest song bird, that you may think there is nothing new to say? However this article may prove helpful as background as we enter the birds most important time here in England.

Man’s relationship with the Nightingale can be traced back to at least Roman times when good singers were considered to be at least as valuable as human slaves. During these times Nightingales were widely kept as caged birds in Italy and elsewhere in Southern Europe.

Caged birds were in great demand in Victorian England and were key targets for professional bird catchers. In 1867 three trappers in the London area caught a total of 225 nightingales, of which 70% had died within one week of captivity. A series of Bird Protection Acts from 1880 greatly curtailed this sordid but very popular trade. Trapping and Liming continues today in parts of Southern Europe where until recently you could purchase pickled blackcaps and nightingales from the village grocery store!

In 1924 Beatrice Harrison became world famous overnight when the BBC broadcast her playing her cello along with a singing nightingale in her wooded garden. This was the first ever outside broadcast transmitted live – and was a huge success, Beatrice received 50,000 letters! She toured America and invited people to come to her garden in Surrey to hear the nightingales, 2000 Americans visited. In 1933 she organised a Nightingale Festival in aid of the RSPB.

Nightingales: A Sound of Spring

Jim Stevenson’s part in ‘Last Song of the Nightingale’, filmed at Paxton Pits

Where they live:

In summer, nightingales are found across Europe and North Africa in thickets, woods and scrub often near water. In winter they are found south of the Sahara, but usually north of the equator. Nightingales that breed in the UK probably winter in West Africa where they can be found in dry scrub and along river edges. Returning birds begin to move north, via Spain and Portugal, in mid to late March.

Most English nightingales (they don’t occur in Wales or Scotland) are found in the South East. If you imagine a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash, that’s roughly the northern limit for these summer birds. Cambridgeshire is on the north-west edge of their range in Europe.

What they look like:

At 16.5 cm from bill to tail, with a wing span of 23-26cm, a nightingale is about 15% larger than a robin, a species with which it is often confused! The nightingale’s head is proportionally smaller and it has a longer tail, suggesting a small thrush, which is what it actually is. The upperparts are a uniform russet-brown, with a reddish tail. Males and females look alike, but juveniles are spotted buff and dark brown, like young robins. The nightingales skulking habits make it difficult to see, hence the importance of its rich, fluting song.

The song:

It is their song for which nightingales are most famous. Sometimes delivered from the top of a bush (or occasionally at Paxton an overhead wire) but more usually from deep within the scrub, the song starts with a series of whistles and finishes in an explosion of sound. It has the rich tone of a song thrush but, instead of repeating every phrase it keeps coming up with new ones. The song composed of long and short phrases with silences in between.

The most recognisable part of the song is an insistant seep-seep-seep-seep on one note that starts very quietly then builds and builds until it explodes into a whole song jammed into less than two seconds. There is also a lower pitched jug-jug-jug call and a rattle. It’s difficult to capture in writing, the joy and wonder comes from the sheer virtuosity of the bird but there is also a suspense.

Breeding time:

Nests are on or near the ground, usually in brambles, scrub or nettles.  The birds lay four or five eggs which are olive-brown and the female incubates for two weeks. Young leave the nest two weeks after hatching.

What they eat:

Mainly insects, as well as small berries – feeding mainly in open areas beneath scrub

The UK Population:

In 1999 there were approx.. 6,700 males in the UK. BTO estimate that at this time the decline in population from 1995 was 57. The latest English population estimations in 2018 were 5,100 singing males.

Nightingales at Paxton Pits – Background

Birds return to this part of England during the first or second week of April. Males arrive first and establish territories, from which they sing to attract females, which do not sing and arrive a few days later. Much migration seems to be at night. Unmated males may sing well into June.

Nightingales do not just sing at night.

Nightingales at Paxton Pits – Changing Status

Locally Tebbutt (1967) described it as ‘fairly common locally’, but perhaps in decline due to habitation destruction.

I did not hear my first Paxton bird until 1972, when the growth of scrub around Heronry South Lake provided good ground cover. By 1996 Clark said that the bird was in decline locally, again due to habitat destruction.

In contrast to the national trend the Paxton population of singing males continued to rise and by 2002-2007 we considered that Paxton Pits held around 29 singing males, and from 2006-2010  we held an annual Nightingale Festival – which proved very popular, drawing in visiting groups from many parts of Britain.

In 2011 we were visited by BBC ’Country File’ with John Craven, which transmitted on 29th May with a two-minute spot of fame!

A long decline in numbers, in line with the National trend followed, and it seemed that Nightingales, along with other migrants were hit hard by the ‘Beast from the East’ in 2017 when fewer than 10 were heard, declining further to just 5 the following year. In more recent years, Nightingales have become virtually non-existent in the traditional ‘core’ areas of the reserve.

Other Cambridgeshire Sites

Other well-known locations include Grafham Water and Castor Hanglands (north of Peterborough), but generally Nightingales are much more difficult to locate than just a few years ago. The reason for the national decline is unknown but habitat loss is considered to be a major factor. The future of the Nightingale as an English breeding bird is a major cause for concern.

Latest News: Our first Nightingale arrived on 4th April 2021

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