May 16, 2015

The bird-loud glade

Because I hadn't, to my knowledge, ever heard a nightingale sing, and because it is one of the natural world's milestone experiences, and because we are right now in the middle of a very short window in which they are in voice, I decided to get the train to Bookham Common and try to hear one; in the spring of 2012 the Common had 16 breeding pairs of these iconic, but fast declining migrants. I decided to go at dusk, when birds sing from their evening roosts; that's when the local rangers organise their nightingale walks, and I needed to leave enough time to get the last train home.

Although I went to secondary school in Bookham the Common wasn't really on my radar as a child. All I can recall of it now is as a place where older kids went in autumn to pick magic mushrooms. So when I got off the slow train from Clapham Junction at 8.30pm on a warm summer's evening, I had very little idea what to expect.

A white picket gate leads directly from the platform into the trees, which give out to scrub and thickets, and then to ponds and the open heath of the Common, grazed by cattle and rabbits and criss-crossed by paths. But as soon as I was under the trees, the sound of the once-an-hour train dying away, I realised that I was absolutely surrounded by birdsong.

I've believed myself surrounded by birdsong before. I have been teaching myself to identify birds by ear, slowly, laboriously, over the last few years, so I'm fairly tuned in to it I have been outside at dusk, and dawn, before, listening to birds, and I grew up in the countryside. But I have never heard anything like this. Instead of perhaps six or seven birds singing from roughly identifiable directions, this was 360°, it was surround-sound, it seemed like hundreds of different songs, from all distances: impossible, almost, to pick one from another. It was almost too much; I found myself laughing, breathless, unable to believe that birdsong could be so total and so immersive.

There were blackbirds carolling, wrens belting out their trills, song thrushes repeating their notes over and over. There were dunnocks and blackcaps, chaffinches and willow warblers. There were dozens of other birds, probably, whose songs I wasn't able to identify. I began to realise, as I walked around in the low evening sun, that picking out any one song from another was going to be hard.

Did I hear a nightingale? I think so – but without someone with me who could confirm it for me, I can't say for sure. Twice I felt that I might be hearing one, the first occasion almost straight off the train – which seemed too good to be true, so I moved on – the second, again, in an area of woodland, this time as the light began to drain from the sky.

I hadn't reckoned on the cacophony of other voices, and more than that, I had expected it to be so utterly unmistakeable that I would be stopped in my tracks. I listened to a nightingale's song on the train there, over and over, using a birdsong app on my phone, but the notes of individual birds differ, and recordings aren't always the best guide; a live performance, coupled with a visual confirmation through binoculars, is the best way. The song I stood stock-still and listened to, deep in the wood, was wonderful: rich, fluting phrases, like a blackbird's, but with more repetition, like a song thrush. Was that the famous 'jug-jug-jug' sound, or was it wishful thinking? I just couldn't be sure. I took my phone out of my pocket to record it, and at that point – of course – it ceased.

As the sun sank below the horizon the birds quieted and then stopped, until I was walking around in near silence, the only sounds the distant M25 and the swish of my own feet through the grass. It was hard to believe that just ten minutes earlier I had been entirely surrounded by song, and that now all the singers were roosting around me, watchful or already asleep. Bats swooped overhead, and I came face to face with a young roe buck, his antlers pale against the dark woodland behind him. But the dark Common seemed utterly birdless.

Venus was bright overhead when I finally found my way back to the station to catch the 22.06 train home. Looking back at the Common from the yellow-lit platform the woods seemed utterly pitch black, and I realised how much my eyes had adjusted to the slow fall of night. It hadn't seemed very dark at all until that point.

I didn't get the experience I'd planned, in which I stood, rapt, and listened for the first time to the unmistakeable song of a nightingale. But I had the most extraordinary evening. Hearing that much birdsong, all at once, was like looking at the night sky when you're in deep countryside and realising that the stars you're used to seeing aren't even a tiny fraction of what's actually there: it recalibrates your imagination. And to walk around, alone, as night falls around you is to reconnect with a sense of self in relation to landscape that must once have been ubiquitous and is now vanishingly rare.

I'm going to try and go back again this week, or the week after; the nightingales will stop singing around the end of May, and then leave in July to fly the 3,000 miles to West Africa where they will overwinter. With numbers of nightingales breeding here having fallen by over 90% in my own lifetime, and their UK habitats under threat of being destroyed, it may really be a case of now or never.

Sign the petition to ask Radio 4 to broadcast live nightingales each May here.