The nightingale sang… on vanishing scrub

Date:

says wildlife writer Jane Adams

The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that nightingale numbers have probably reduced by more than 90 per cent since the 1960s

They are part of our natural heritage. We hear recordings of their melodic songs on the radio and social media. Their name appears in literature, poems and WW2 love songs. They feel familiar, as if we should somehow know them. Yet how many of us have ever heard, much less seen, a living, breathing nightingale?
I found an old handwritten notebook in a local library recently. Dating back to the early 19th century, it documented the wildlife that once thrived in our village. The dormice crawled through the hedgerows. There were red squirrels in the woods and thousands of butterflies flitted over the flower-rich meadows. Yet, it was the mention of nightingales singing at night in the nearby fields that made me realise how much we have lost. Back then, I would have heard nightingales from my garden – all I hear now is the traffic.

Due to their small size (about the size of a robin) and rather drab brown colouring, spotting a nightingale is a challenge

Where did they all go?
Along with other summer migratory birds, such as cuckoos, nightingales are now frighteningly rare. The British Trust for Ornithology estimates their numbers have probably reduced by more than 90 per cent since the 1960s – there are likely to be fewer than 10,000 nightingales visiting our shores this spring.
Due to their small size (about the size of a robin) and rather drab brown colouring, spotting them is a challenge in their preferred coppiced woodland or scrub.
Sadly, suitable habitat is also hard for them to find.
Modern landowners don’t have much tolerance for scrub, and our woodlands don’t have the dense understory of foliage nightingales need.
A few years ago, I was told about a spot where nightingales had previously nested. In a clearing, next to blackthorns iced with blossom, and long after the sun had disappeared, I waited.
The song started softly.
Gradually it grew, becoming more confident, much louder and more urgent. There was a brief silence. Then more lingering tones, and short, sharp notes. On and on it went, holding me captive, unable to move. Perhaps I perceived a desperation in this bird’s song? Or was I acutely aware of its rarity? Or maybe it was my menopausal hormones.
Whatever the reason, I cried.

  • Ten years ago, on a warm April night, we were on our way home around midnight and surprised to hear loud birdsong through the car window. Pulling into a layby on the usually-busy A-road, we simply sat – silent and still – listening to my first nightingale. You can hear a minute of that utterly magical moment in the video below – Ed

Could rewilding initiatives in Dorset be the lifeline nightingales need?

Rewilding initiatives like Wild Woodbury, Mapperton Wildlands, and West Dorset Wilding, with their hands-off approach to land management, may be just what nightingales need to survive in Dorset, and hopefully to thrive in the future. After conservationists spotted a nightingale at Wild Woodbury last year, hopes are high that nightingales will return to breed in 2024. At other established rewilding sites, such as Knepp in East Sussex, nightingales have made a welcome comeback.

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