Country diary: we are down to our last male nightingale


The wind is subsiding and the sun is beginning to set, lighting up the edges of the clouds. I follow the worn footpath across the fields on the outskirts of the town and almost immediately hear the nightingale, its pure voice carrying through the cold evening air.

This time last year, I found three singing males holding territory around these fields, hidden in the dense trees, hedges and brambles. There was a fourth singing near the railway line, too – also in thick, undisturbed vegetation. Those birds were my highlight of last spring’s lockdown – their varied, virtuoso songs lifted my spirits then. But all I can find is this single bird. Ten years ago we had even more, but a combination of building and tidiness reduced their numbers to just the occasional nightingale – until last year.

It’s been a cold spring and many summer migrant birds seem to have been late arriving, but there are certainly fewer around than last year. Have the cold northerly winds held them back or is there more disturbance this time? In February, many of the bushes and young trees were removed and the hedges cut back, so the wild rose, juniper and bramble bushes that fed birds in winter and gave cover to whitethroats last spring are mostly gone, apart from this island of impenetrable, untidy growth.

I try to get a bit closer to the nightingale, and peer into the dark voids between the tangled bramble twigs. I can just glimpse movement, an obscured brown bird – its body vibrating when it sings – and I record its position on my phone.

I head for home. I’ll return to look for nightingales, in the hope there are others around, somewhere. But I’ll also listen for this bird again because I don’t know if it will be the last one I hear around here. I walk back across the open fields, silvered dandelion globes shining on the dark grass. I can still hear the nightingale behind me, singing from its untouched stronghold of twisted branches – a lonely, beautiful song of defiance.


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