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May 2016

Birds, History, UK Travel, Wildlife, Woodlands

Nature’s Most Romantic Song – The Nightingale

The sound is so clear it wraps itself around us like a warm blanket.  It’s 8.30pm and the liquid trills and repeated phrases serenade us as we sit in the garden on long cushions delighted by this beautiful evening concert.

The melody is endlessly varied. For about an hour the bird sings in deep, clear notes. Yasmine, 10, sits happily wrapped up in the same blanket as me, enchanted by the performance which like an opera carries us on a journey. We understand the words even though it’s in a different language.

It’s the nightingale. The beautiful, nocturnal chorister. He’s flown 3,000 miles from west Africa to reach the UK.

19 May 1924 was the first day radio listeners heard a cello playing while nightingales sang, live from a Surrey garden. The cellist was Beatrice Harrison, who had recently performed the British debut of Delius's Cello Concerto, which had been written for her. The nightingales were the birds in the woods around Harrison's home in Oxted, who were attracted by the sound of her cello.

19 May 1924 was the first day radio listeners heard a cello playing while nightingales sang, live from a Surrey garden. The cellist was Beatrice Harrison, who had recently performed the British debut of Delius’s Cello Concerto, which had been written for her. The nightingales were the birds in the woods around Harrison’s home in Oxted, who were attracted by the sound of her cello.

May is the best time to hear nightingales as the males who arrive first sing to establish territory and attract a mate.

Sussex, Suffolk and Kent are the best places in the UK to hear the nightingales song.

Nightingale Tales:

In 1924, a famous cellist, Beatrice Harrison was practicing in her garden in Oxted, Surrey, when she heard the nightingale respond with its own song to her beautiful tune.

Night after night she played and the bird sang with her. She wanted to share her extraordinary experience and persuaded BBC radio to record it.

Lord Reith, founder and director general of the BBC initially didn’t support the idea, complaining it was a costly and unpredictable exercise as birds could be prima donnas.

The engineers prepared the microphone, Beatrice played, the broadcast was live…but the nightingale was silent.

Then finally 15 minutes before the end of the broadcast, he sung and sung.

The public were enthralled. The performance was so popular it was repeated the next month and then every spring for 12 years.

Here is a clip of Beatrice Harrison’s cello and nightingale duet, 19 May 1924 on BBC Radio.

Did a nightingale sing in Berkeley Square? Romantics all over the world who love the British wartime song written in 1939 would like to believe they did.

Doubters say almost certainly not as nightingales prefer woodland with a dense undergrowth. But nightingales were once found in London. We know the nightingales on Hampstead Heath inspired Keats to write his Ode to a Nightingale.

 

One February, Margaret Thatcher is reported to have told a senior official that she heard a nightingale singing outside 10 Downing Street. The aide, a keen birdwatcher, explained that she must be mistaken as the nightingale is a woodland bird and a late spring migrant.

The Prime Minister kept insisting, but the aide was equally determined. On the third time her private secretary intervened and said discreetly, ‘If the Prime Minister says she heard a nightingale, then she heard a nightingale.’

The beautiful song of a nightingale singing in East Sussex. This was recorded from our garden last night.

 

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Birds, Conservation, Family Travel, UK Travel

Halcyon Days

Photo: Stuart Conway

Photo: Stuart Conway

A tantalising glimpse of the electric blue and orange stripe of a kingfisher streaking past me and I was hooked.

I waited all day, tried to spot it again, but nothing.
What is it about kingfishers? Once you’ve seen them, they work their way into your consciousness and you have to see them again. It becomes an obsession. I needed to see these birds.
For years they eluded me, and it definitely wasn’t for want of trying. I’d sit in bird hides all day, brave nettles and brambles along quiet river paths where there were reports that they’d been spotted.
I started to think the only time I’d ever see them was on the side of one of my favourite mugs.
It was my eight-year-old son, Meely (Emil,) who unlocked the key to this mysterious bird for me. We’d been sitting in a hide waiting and watching. It was late afternoon and I could hear the rest of my family in the hill above, playing in the bluebell covered woods. I had the picnic bag and I knew our girls would be getting hungry.
I packed up my binoculars, flask and notepad and assumed Meely would be relieved to be leaving after sitting so still for so long.
But he refused to move, his eyes transfixed on the river.
‘We can’t leave, he’s here I know he’s here,’ he said with absolute certainty and determination.
‘We’re not going to see him, I’m so sorry,’ I said.
I got up and stood by the door ready to lift the heavy wooden latch, but he still wouldn’t come.
‘Lets go,’ I said, ‘I can’t see him.’
‘No, but I can hear him,’ said Meely. ‘He’s been calling, the sound is close we are going to see him.’
And at that moment the beautiful elusive bird, called with his distinctive sharp whistle…. zoomed in to the branch and sat on it, while another hovered, wings fluttering before disappearing down the river.
The king of birds sat on the branch for almost a minute and then disappeared. I felt elated, at last I’d seen this special bird. I hugged Meely tight. He was so proud, he chattered and chattered about every detail, every moment.
 
He taught me the most important lesson, to spot a kingfisher, listen first, then look. Now I hear them regularly. And most of the time I see them too.
And everytime I still feel the same elation and I’m grateful to my boy.
K2

Photos: Stuart Conway

Did you know…
The ancient Greeks called the bird the ‘halcyon.’ They believed the female built her nest on the waves and the Gods calmed the seas while she brooded her eggs around the time of the winter solstice.
Now the phrase, ‘halycon days’ refers to nostalgic summer days even though the original halcyon days were in winter.
Kingfishers build their nests in a burrow 60-90cm deep into a sandy riverbank. 
They bring more than 100 fish everyday to feed their brood.
At 24-25 days old the chicks are usually ready to leave the nest.

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