The Nightingale

Hollesley, Suffolk, May 17th 2016

‘We know the air is filled with vibrations that we can’t see.’   John Cage, Birds.

‘Do I wake or sleep?’ All night I kept waking, thinking I was dreaming as a Nightingale called outside the window.

I had no thoughts of poetry, just the volume and variety of the first Nightingale heard for 20 years or so, since France. I’d wake and the bird was still pumping it noise, running through its variety of trills, whistles and raspings, sharing some of the repetitive phrases of the Song Thrush, but strangely reminding me of a miniature Lyrebird with its harsh mechanical gutturals.

At 4am the bird was making music on his own, apart from a Tawny Owl tooting distance. I get up, wrap up, place my camera on the roof of car and press record. The bird is only ten feet away. I rub my ears, it must be around two or three degrees. Gradually Robins and Wrens and then the others join its slipstream and the dawn chorus starts, but the Nightingale is soloist.

We head to Shingle Beach for Eos and the solitude of vast space open sea with a few corrugations clawing gently but noisily at the jumble of shingle and sunrise briefly walking the tightrope beside Orford Lighthouse.

Eos_Shingle Beach2

Returning we spook two groups of Fallow deer that scampered up the sandy track. We look for the Nightingale still fastened to its weird medley, so close yet its plain brown plumage is invisible in the small tree. We pack up and leave this small bird’s ghostly presence still singing into a cold wind, what amazing stamina his relentless repetition.

Nightingale is Night Singer from the Old English. The usual narrative sings males at night to advertise their presence as migrating females fly overhead, or to defend their territory. But whichever, the aesthetic quality of the singing is left unexplained, neither the musicality nor the complexity, with up to 300 different phrasings in his repertoire. The older the bird, the richer the repertoire. Once they have mated they often stop singing at night, but continue through the day into early summer.

I would just add that the Blackbird’s song is my favourite, common and so taken for granted. The bird is usually perched clearly visible as he pours out his beautiful melodious fluting song that often ends with a rattle, as if prefiguring mortality.

From the BBC – Singer and folk song collector Sam Lee explains how the nightingale’s beautiful musical phrases and leitmotifs make it the perfect partner for a duet.