Listen out at night for song of the nightingale

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Don’t get confused; not every bird that sings at night is a nightingale. Graham Appleton, from the BTO in Thetford, explains.

The BTO is running a national survey of nightingales this year and we’re getting calls from people in towns and villages who tell us that they have nightingales singing in their gardens in the dark.

In almost every case the bird with an urge to break into song will be a robin, but there are other candidates too, particularly song thrush, blackbird and dunnock. Nightingales are secretive birds that sing from high up in a bush during the darkest part of the night, while other species will usually be singing near a street-lamp or other source of artificial light, fired up with testosterone and eager to show off.

In the last survey of nightingales, in 1999, Suffolk was the second best county in the UK, beaten only by Kent. Our county total of 861 singing males comprised nearly 20 per cent of the national total, over twice as many as had been found in 1980. The species is restricted to southeast England, spilling over from its heartland of mainland Europe. Despite our warming climate, the species is disappearing rapidly from many counties and it is unlikely that we will find more than 500 Suffolk birds this year.

The nightingale is an excellent singer and you do not have to be hiding in a copse at midnight to hear them. Male nightingales are part of the early dawn chorus and also sing well in the evening, alongside other species such as robins and blackbirds. But in the dark, when other birds have fallen silent, the song is truly wonderful, echoing around a woodland or from thick bushes in the still, warmth of the night. Here’s a sad thought, though. It has recently been discovered that nightingales that continue to sing at night well into May are almost certainly unpaired birds, still going through the repertoire of melodies in the hope of calling down a female, newly arrived from countries such as Ghana. After a while it becomes a forlorn hope. We are asking our volunteers to undertake the nightingale survey in the early mornings of April and May and then to return at night, if they can, to check on the proportion of birds that are still singing and probably alone.

The nightingale has long been a big part of our culture and there’s a BTO CD that celebrates some of the wonderful recordings of its song. It includes, the earliest known recording, a BBC broadcast of a woodland duet with the cello of Beatrice Harrison, a bird competing against a flight of British bombers in World War Two, song from woodlands from which the species has since disappeared and recordings in nature reserves dedicated to the species’ protection. Sales support our nightingale work (01842 750050).

If you want to hear a nightingale in the next week or so, there are special nightingale walks in the county and other evening and dawn chorus events when a nightingale could be a bonus. If you are out on your own and you hear a nightingale please report it – and if you want to check that the identification is correct, there’s another of the BTO’s identification videos to watch on YouTube –

Nightingales are really secretive so, if you see the silhouette of a singing bird, outlined against the night sky, it’s probably not a nightingale.