There is a certain magical tone to the voice of a nightingale, that can only be truly known when directly experienced. The joyful variety of its song (although some would say melancholic), of overwhelming amplitude given its small size, dominates the audiosphere of those places fortunate enough to play host to this melodious passerine.
On Monday evening I was one of the privileged few to hear the nightingales, in fine voice, at Fingringhoe Wick nature reserve, on the bounds of the River Colne in north Essex. Essex Wildlife Trust warden Matt Cole leads evening walks around the reserve at this time of year, and the nightingale is undoubtedly the star of the show.
Fingringhoe is, I believe, the jewel in the crown of Essex Wildlife Trust reserves, and is also its oldest, having been with the Trust since 1961. As a former gravel pits, the site has developed to host a number of habitats, from gorse heathland to reedbeds and deep ponds, as well as a recently created intertidal area. Thousands of waders call the estuary home during the winter months and over 200 bird species have been recorded on the reserve. The dense areas of scrub are the reason so many nightingales are attracted to the site every year. Indeed, Fingringhoe is arguably one of the national strongholds for the species, with 25 to 35 males heard each year.
Our small group headed out across the reserve with Matt relaying his nightingale knowledge and we stopped at key places around the site, listening out for the distinctive song, and hoping to catch a glimpse of a small brown bird. The particularly brilliant thing about nightingales from the point of view of a birdwatcher (or perhaps bird listener would be more to the point here), is that they do not mind the human voice. Indeed, the males see it as a challenge and will simply sing louder, to make their own voice heard above the din. Nonetheless, for me, the most memorable parts of the evening were the times that (human) silence struck the group, and you could close your eyes and relax into the birdsong.
It was a strangely still and cool evening and as the light dimmed the nightingales seemed to come into their own. Flashes of colour in the sky were echoed by the yellow gorse, mellowing as the sun went down.
Nightingales will only live a few years, and yet within that period they face epic migrations. It is important not to impose human values or feelings on other species, but nevertheless I cannot help but feel humbled by the spirit, purpose and struggle of this little bird as it does what it needs, to survive and reproduce to ensure its long-term future as a species.
Occasionally you experience wildlife moments that will stick with you for the rest of your life. Often there are many factors in making these memorable. Certainly, whatever these were on Monday evening, this nightingale walk was such a night for me. I drove away from the reserve feeling distinctly still, reflective and with a positivity of mind that had been lacking for some time before. There was work to be done the day after, and an early start ahead, but for that time at least I could relish in my short-term memories of the Fingringhoe nightingales.