It’s late, almost ten, at the end of a scorching hot bank holiday weekend. It’s dark, but not quite dark enough for the stars to have appeared, although I can see two planets – Venus brilliant to the south-west and Jupiter to the east. The air is cooling nicely and I am on the hunt for a nightingale.
I have been inspired by the wonderful programme last night on Radio 3 (Slow Radio – Nightingales) where half a dozen musicians played their instruments in a Sussex wood, responding to and playing with the song of a nightingale. It was in just such a Sussex wood, maybe twenty years ago, that I heard my first nightingale – it was in earshot of the local speedway track and the little bird easily outsang the tannoy and bikes. No speedway here, but the railway is close by , and there is a steady stream of planes in and out if the American airbase. Plenty of competition!
I am on my way to the pits to where I’ve heard them before, and I am hopeful that this balmy evening will bring one out. However, previous encounters have always been at dusk and I am wondering if I have left it too late? It also crosses my mind that they may not be here yet – they arrive throughout May and this is still only the first week.
I walk down the cinder track, past where the Cow Tree used to be, and I am surprised by the sheer variety of birdsong I can hear. There are geese on the river chuntering away to each other, a raspy crow grumbles behind me in the town somewhere and, over the trees, an absolute din from the colony of terns that have established themselves in recent years. I love watching the terns out on the river – the most beautiful of birds, graceful in the air, dynamic and lithe as they dive for fish, but tonight they are just noise. Then a brief moment of excitement at what turns out to be a blackbird – a tremendous songsmith in its own right, but not what I seek this evening.
In the distance I can hear a cuckoo – they are in the reedbeds beyond the pits. Its call has a haunting quality at this time of night. Less haunting are the oyster catchers with their shrill piping call, and a pheasant that explodes out of the hedge in a flappetty whirr of wings. And then there are all the things I can’t identify – chirrupps and thripps, peep-peepings and whistles as nameless birds ready themselves for sleep. A moorhen calls from the water meadow and I think I can hear an owl hoot, but it is far off and it may be wishful thinking.
I pause, enjoying the cool air as I listen. It is beginning to look like my search will be fruitless so I head for home, this time through the field on the other side of the hedge from the cinder track. I want to get closer to the blackbird who is still singing away – who needs a fancy dan nightingale! Again I pause to listen.
Bloody hell! A fox barks! It can’t be more than ten or fifteen yards away and I jump. I know it can’t hurt me, but my hair is on end and shivers are racing up and down my spine. Thrilled, and heart pounding, I walk on.
I can see the stars now, and it is discernibly darker. No nightingales this evening, so I’ll try again later in the week – blackbird excepted, most of the birds have gone quiet, leaving me alone with just the church bells sounding out eleven o’clock and the fox barking somewhere behind me in the dark black woods.