Simon Carpenter, a Trust member, gives us his reflections on a bird which will return to us in late April. As he explains, the nightingale is in decline but it can still be heard at our nature reserves like Thurlbear Wood, near Taunton, which is among its most westerly breeding areas. Although unpaired males do sing at night, it can also be heard during the day.
A nightingale sings
In late April, last year, my neighbours heard the unmistakeable song of a nightingale coming from an area of dense scrubby habitat across from where we live in Frome, Somerset. My neighbours, keen naturalists, had just returned from a holiday in southern Spain, where nightingales remain relatively common. They had been listening intently to their songs during their stay. When they woke in the early hours in Frome, to hear a nightingale singing, it took them a while to realise that the trickle of notes they were hearing was not a Spanish bird but an English one delivering its song from a thicket across the road from where they lived. From that point on, this lone nightingale sang almost every day and night until the first week of June.
Heard not seen
The nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) has largely disappeared as a breeding bird in the south west although numbers remain higher in the south east. It is more often heard than seen, preferring to skulk in thick scrub. I have spent many a frustrating time following a singing bird from one bush to another hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse - often without success. The loud and confident song suggests a larger bird - but nightingales are only slightly larger than robins and have an unassuming plain brown appearance. Few other bird species can match the fast succession of rich notes - many delivered in long melodious pulses. If you haven’t already heard one, I would recommend that you do so as soon as possible - it’s a truly uplifting experience - but do not wait too long!
The loss of bird song?
The Nightingale is one of a number of British migrant bird species in decline. As insect eaters they have little choice but to leave our shores as the weather turns colder to return to warmer places and food. The current (2011) RSPB estimate of Nightingale numbers puts the population at about 6,700 breeding pairs. It has been estimated that over the last 25 years, their population has declined by 25-49%. The reasons for this dramatic fall in nightingale numbers is not fully understood. A decline in their favoured insect species and lack of suitable nesting habitats are certainly implicated in their disappearance from many areas.
Plentiful blackthorn and hawthorn scrub provide ideal nesting habitat for nightingales. Nests are often built close to or on the ground. A dense thicket of thorns helps protect their eggs and young from predators such as rats, foxes and crows. There is some evidence that the increase in deer numbers is having a significant impact on nesting habitats by removing, by grazing, much of the low scrubby habitat favoured by nightingales. Sympathetic woodland management is also critical. Coppiced woodland habitat is ideal as it provides the low dense vegetation needed for nesting and protection but also a greater abundance of insect prey.
Insects thrive in these more open, sunlit habitats because their food plants are more abundant. Sadly these woodland practices have all but died out in some parts of the country. There is also evidence that the nightingales’ decline is linked to habitat changes in sub Saharan Africa as a direct result of climate change. These areas of the world provide essential stopping off places for migrating birds wanting to refuel on their journeys south. As these regions become drier, many of the insects that these birds depend upon will disappear.
A most wondrous and joyful song
In July 2011, I visited Italy, staying close to the Umbria-Tuscany border. By this time our Frome bird had stopped singing. But in Italy, many nightingales were still singing - filling the evening air with mesmerising sound. For most of my holiday I was able to throw the windows open at night knowing that my final thoughts before sleep were always going to be filled with a most wondrous and joyful song.