It’s just after dawn on a freezing cold April morning, and at the side of the track I’m standing on, the flailed edge of a grove of coppiced hazel has formed a deep, jumbled jackstraw layer of faded brown stems and splintered sticks. It’s a common sight in nature reserves at this time of year, yet from within it I am hearing a sound that seems utterly alien to the British countryside.
It starts familiarly, like the high trilling of a wren, but then changes into a slowly rising scale of deep, bouncing ‘boings’ and an astonishingly loud machine-gun ‘dadadada’. It is a tropical sound, and I can imagine a large, brightly coloured bird with exotic tail feathers singing it in the depths of the jungle. Yet it comes from a bird lightly larger than a robin, with a rufous back and cream-grey chest, which is so British that it even features in our songs. It is part of our culture, but these days most people have never heard it. It’s the nightingale.
Three months earlier, the song would not have been out of place. The nightingale I am hearing would have been five thousand kilometres away in equatorial Guinea. It is a male, and has arrived here within this last week to defend a breeding territory with its astonishing voice. And it is not alone: I can hear another competing male a hundred or so yards away.
Several hours spent watching, and I am convinced that nightingales are also ventriloquists. The sound is so loud at times that the bird must be close enough to touch, yet the only time I see it is when a pair of males rise and fly around me in a raucous, bad-tempered territorial dispute. Nightingales have a well-earned reputation for being elusive, singing in deep cover and rarely being seen. But in the few weeks, before the hazel groves erupt into their large, dancing leaves, I still have a chance, so I’m going to try again. But even if I never photograph this fast-declining, red list bird, the early morning start will be worth it. In the midst of lockdown I can close my eyes on a small patch of English woodland, feel the heat of the sun on my back and hear the sound of the tropics.
Foreign holidays? Who needs them?