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Singing with nightingales

05 April 2018

Every spring woodlands in the south of England can be filled with the beautiful sound of nightingale song. Since 2014 folk singer Sam Lee has celebrated this natural event with evenings of food, stories, music and, of course, birdsong. Katy Bravery reports.

Nightingale singing at night

It’s 11.15 at night. It’s time. We all rise as quietly as we can from round the bonfire, zipping up coats against the spring chill and taking a last glug of fireside wine. Then, stumbling slightly - some suppressing giggles under the strain of keeping silent - start to tread, softly, softly, on a leaf-carpet path leading into the dark wood beyond.

We’re on a pilgrimage of sorts. To hear up close the ever-rarer sound of a nightingale singing into the darkness to woo a mate. But there’s more, we’re accompanied by two musicians who aim to join with the bird in a strange and magical harmony. There’s a chance of course that no nightingales will turn up for their own concert. But in hope we creep on, twenty or so pairs of eyes fast accustomising to the night and soon surprisingly able to see our way through the trees and sweet-smelling blackthorn blossom of our secret destination deep in Kent.

We had gathered earlier that evening to meet fellow pilgrims sitting round a vast bonfire on which delicious-smelling cooking pans simmered - our fireside feast. Most had come as they had never heard a nightingale.

As we ate and quaffed we listened to fascinating tales of the folklore and nature of the area from our hosts, including naturalist and folk singer Sam Lee, the extraordinary creator of this extraordinary event (if you saw the recent King Arthur film he sang the theme tune, the Devil and the Huntsman).

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Cellist Beatrice Harrison

It all began when his ear, tuned to the eclectic, was caught by a 1924 BBC recording of cellist Beatrice Harrison. She had heard nightingales in her Sussex garden and one night decided to set up her cello outside to duet with them. The birds, far from being put off, responded – singing along with her, even picking up on some of her motifs.

She persuaded Lord Reith to allow the BBC to come and record the collaboration and the broadcast was a sensation. Some 50,000 listeners wrote in to express how affected they had been.

The broadcasts continued at the same time every year until halted in 1942. It was feared the recordings, which by then had captured the distant, menacing sound of aeroplanes, might give away RAF movements.

Sam, a bird lover since childhood, was inspired to try it himself, seeking out the birds and singing with them. From this came the idea to share the unique experience. He created events along the nightingales’ flightpath across southern England, bringing together a wide range of world-renowned musicians to accompany the birds, weaving in talks around the fireside by raconteurs, ornithologists and naturalists.

Beatrice Harrison playing her cello with the song of nightingales, 1927.

Singing with nightingales

2018 is the fourth year of these rare concerts and the roster of talent is astounding - around 30 musicians from the worlds of folk, classical, world music and jazz are set to duet with their feathered collaborators this spring. Saga readers will know one in particular - Barbara Dickson. New this year is a series of broadcasts live from the woods and into theatres across Britain for those unable to attend the events in Sussex and Kent.

The underlying aim is, of course, to highlight the heartbreaking decline of the birds - their numbers falling every year - by bringing awareness and empathy with these elusive birds to a greater audience.

Males, winging 3,000 miles from Africa, arrive around April and pick a clearing within a wood where they will sing until a female flies over, picks up his music and descends to meet him. When paired, the male stops singing: the season is short, from April to May with only a few lonely bachelor nightingales still singing, hopefully, into June.

Sam – there are different naturalists and ornithologists on different nights - explains all this round the fire, punctuated by singing some of the many almost-lost folk songs he has gathered and rescued from around Britain. His singing style is not unlike the nightingale’s itself, clear and pure, full of unexpected twists and turns and slightly hypnotic. The faces circled around the bonfire, reflecting red from the glow, are rapt.

We’ve been walking for 20 minutes when there’s a halt up ahead. Catching up we hear in the distance a faint, fluid run of notes. Then, further away, another song breaks out. There’s more than one nightingale.

Excited, in minutes we arrive at a small clearing ringed by low trees and bushes and, right at the top and outlined against the slight glow of the sky, is a bird the size of a small thrush. All is quiet.

Our hosts motion us to stop. Some sit, some stand, hushed and expectant. Suddenly, with heart-lurching purity, the nightingale starts to sing. Long, intricate riffs and trills cut through the night air, sweet and melancholy. Further along the clearing another song breaks out, then another – each sometimes copying the other’s series of notes. It’s beyond magical, akin to the thrush’s beautiful evening song yet far more complex, long and soulful.

For twenty minutes or so we listen, enraptured. Then, quietly, Sam starts to sing along with the bird, matching but never competing. Their voices twist and entwine. When he stops, uncannily the bird repeats some of the riffs from the human’s song. Another nightingale across the clearing copies the sequence.

After a while, our other musician, expert in a sitar-like Persian instrument called the Tar, starts to play an accompaniment, his soft twangs contrasting with the nightingale’s warm tones. The bird supremely ignores his audience - intent on wooing a mate he pours out his song as if no one is there.

And us? We can barely breathe. The evening supposedly ends just after midnight but no one wants to break the spell. In reverence we sit on the cool grass until the sky starts to lighten then, reluctantly, head for home, carrying memories to last a lifetime.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale

The song may be over

Nightingales are firmly on the sorrowful ‘red list’ of endangered birds, joining nearly a quarter of Britain’s most-loved species such as the curlew and puffin. Numbers have reduced some 90% in the past 50 years.

Reasons are many, ranging from woods remaining uncoppiced or simply levelled; intensive farming practices; climate change and housing developments - right up to an increase in the deer population.

In the UK they breed mostly south of the Severn-Wash line and East from Dorset to Kent. The highest densities are found in the south east - Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Kent and Sussex. They arrive in April to sing until late May and early June, leaving July to August.

The 2016 ‘State of the UK’s Birds’ report, compiled by groups including the Royal RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology showed they are joined by 66 other British birds on the Red endangered list, an increase of 15 since the last review in 2009.

What can you do?

- Join your local Wildlife Trust: many campaign to prevent habitats from destruction. 

- If you live south of the Severn, find out if there is a nightingale habitat near you and keep a lookout for any clearance or development plans.

- Support the work of the BTO, CPRE and RSPB - ask them how you can get involved with campaigns or practical steps to help nightingales particularly or open woodland generally.

- Encourage coppicing in overgrown woods near you – is there an agricultural course nearby whose woodland management students need some practice?

What to expect on the night

18.30 Arrival
19.30 Guided dusk walk to listen to the evening chorus
20.15 Dinner and drinks around the campfire
21.00 Folklore and ornithology with your host
21.45 Campfire musical performance by your artist
22.30 Walk to find nightingale for duet
23.00 Performance with nightingale
00.30 Estimated finish time

Find out more

The woodland evenings in Kent and Sussex (April and May only) cost £75pp inclusive of supper and drink. Live broadcast theatre evenings across the UK are around £16.


Find out about the RSPB's National Nightingale Festival taking place across the country.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.