Monday, 20 June 2011

A croak in the bushes

I had never heard a Nightingale croak before! That such a renowned songster should utter an agitated amphibian croak came as a surprise. It was something quite unexpected, something that had passed me by all these years; an overlooked oddity that highlighted the gaps that remain in my experiences of our wildlife.

Oaken Wood is part of a much larger expanse of forest that spreads, lush and verdant, across the Surrey/Sussex borderlands. Owned by the Forestry Commission, Oaken Wood is managed as a reserve by Butterfly Conservation for its rich butterfly fauna, which includes such notable species as Purple Emperor, White Admiral and Wood White. It is also ideal for Nightingales, the thick regrowth providing the scrubby cover they favour for breeding.

According to Tony there were a dozen pairs or so here and, as we moved through the wood, snatches of male song echoed from the shadows. Restrained though they are, these short, measured flurries of song suggest that any moment the songster will break into an even louder and more resonant tune. Despite the association with thick cover, Tony noted that most of the nests would be within a couple of metres of the edge, something he had been taught as a boy by his father, an old boy ringer I’d met some years ago. Fewer than a dozen Nightingale nests are monitored each year (for the BTO Nest Record Scheme) but we hoped to add to that total through our visit to this site.

A soft hweet stopped us in our tracks – an off-nest female calling to her mate. Settling down just on the edge of the thicker cover and allowing our eyes to adjust to the gloom we watched and listened to see if we could follow her back to the nest. Tony took up a position further into the gloom, prompting the female to issue a frog-like croaking call. This meant that we were close to the nest and that it contained either eggs that were very close to hatching or chicks. Over the next hour, a patient game of watching ensued; every now and then I would glimpse the female, silhouetted against a patch of sunlight striking down through the gloom from a gap in the canopy. She was carrying food, so now it was certain that the nest contained chicks.

The patience paid off, the female returning again and again to the same patch of loose bramble cover, beneath which we found the surprisingly large nest, with its deep cup and five dark chicks. In the soft, droning gloom of the wood it seemed a very intimate moment and I felt privileged to have shared it with these wonderful croaking birds.

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