With the spring sluggishly rolling forward, various migrants are returning. Chiff-chaffs have been dropping their repetitive song for weeks and swallows and house martins are feasting on the drowsy insects. I finally saw a swift this evening, so for me things are pointing towards summer.
But one returner has excited us locally over recent evenings; a nightingale that has chosen to stop and make its play for a mate nearby. Although not unknown in Norfolk, these are by no means common, and I have never heard one before. Having been tipped off that he was about, we jumped in the car to see if we could hear him. On stepping out of the car at around 10pm, we immediately heard the song standing out, simply being the only songbird to be heard at that time of night. Although about quarter of a mile away, the sound was carrying comfortably on the windy night air and we stood listening for 15 minutes or so. I managed to record it, but the combination of distance and wind meant it was not a great recording.
Returning a couple of days later on a stiller evening to see if I could get a better recording, I positioned myself before dusk near to where the song had seemed to come from. Waiting and listening to the night sounds through the headphones of my digital recorder, I was immersed in a soundworld of extraordinary drama; songs of blackbirds, robins and chaffinches all around were invested with an intensity absent when heard in the daytime; the cough of deer and pheasants were like bombs going off, and the tawny owl hooting completed the soundtrack perfectly. As I stood there, shadows darkening on each side, I saw a barn owl flick silently out of a copse, before returning minutes later with prey, passing mere yards from me. But no nightingale.
And then, just as I was ready to go, resigned to the fact that it had moved on, it started. And I was stood right next to it! As you can hear from this recording, I was then treated to a bravura performance, of trills, swoops, chirrups and buzzes.
Nightingale song is a somewhat tired poetic shortcut for beauty, but I'm not sure that I would class the song as outright beautiful. Other birds have more mellifluous and sweet-sounding song (the larks I recorded recently for one). But the power and range of sound produced was startling, and as any musician knows, it is what you don't play that matters as much as what you do, and the gaps around the sound heightened the drama of the song further.
In some ways, the song is actually reminiscent of many other bird's - it has some of the same repetitive phrasing of the thrush, the rich tone of the blackbird and the powerful trills of the chaffinch. In that way it is somehow the quintessence of birdsong, as if all of the birdsong in the world has been packed into this little drab, brown bird and is bursting forth in case it should burst. It is certainly a uniquely captivating song, and the whole experience is one that I shall remember for a long time.
Cycling back from the pub the evening after, the nightingale was still going, the sound filling the whole valley in the still evening. "There's the nightingale" we said. From rarity to old friend in a few days...