Caught by the River

In Search Of The Nightingale's Song

25th August 2010

By Matt Poacher
Image by Dan Morelle

It has been awful quiet in these parts. I’ll confess to a certain amount of lassitude certainly, but really life has got in the way in all its prickly forms. Not least a hideous dose of uvula pustules (or tonsillitis to the school nurse) which left me feeling like I had a hedgehog nesting to the north west of my larynx. Not much fun. I did hear this cracking show on Radio 4 whist I was off though – Chris Watson’s Search for the Nightingale’s Song. He does seem to be everywhere at the moment (the interview in a recent issue of The Wire is really something and it’s led me to TC Lethbridge, more of which another time) – and with good reason. His method seems simple and yet there is something close to perfection in his (and his equipment’s) output. His recording of the nightingale is a signature occurrence – thorough, rapt and so clear and pure at times as to sound artificial.

A few years ago I was walking down by the River Test near King’s Somborne. It was late April and getting very close to the arrival dates for our intake of nightingales. It was humid for April, the air clammy and dense; and one particular field, set just back from the river, was boisterous with bird song, the air full of the criss-crossings of repeating figures of trills and whistles. From what I could make out the bulk of the noise could only have been coming from two or three locations, and despite never having heard nightingales in the field before, I was convinced these had to be them. It was an intense barrage of noise, at times like extended raygun peals, at others like some cracked and slipped motorik – always fading away into a single reedy note before the next barrage began. It wasn’t song so much as textile, a swarm of threads knitting the air around me. I was mesmerised.

Unsure of myself however, I spoke to a friend who worked for the RSPB. He was free and suggested we could go back to the same location and clear the matter up for certain. These could be very adroit song thrushes, after all. So back we went. It was some 10 days later and the air had cooled and thinned. The low scrub where I’d heard the singing, still leafless at this stage looked dirtier in the lessening light. There was a heavy silence, punctuated by the occasional blast from a desultory song thrush. A series of weak trills and bleeps – where were the fireworks? I was a little sheepish to say the least, and though we waited for the best part of an hour, nothing appeared. I started to think it must have been an aural hallucination, maybe I’d ingested some ergot? Then he had an idea.

At the time I was driving a Volvo 340, an utterly graceless squashed whale of a car, replete with the turning circle of an arthritic brontosaurus. Indeed so heavy was the steering that the previous owner had affixed one of those snooker ball sized black knobs (hereafter to be called the knob of joy) to the steering wheel to help him get the fucker round car parks and the like. I hadn’t removed it. My mate, for his job (so he says) happened to have all four CDs of Jean C. Roche’s monumental All the Bird Songs of Britain and Europe (‘396 chants en 4 CDs’) on his iPod and we figured if we could get the car close enough to the field and play the iPod through the car’s (frankly superb) stereo we might be able to lure the birds from whence they may have fled. I pictured us huddled safe inside the car whilst hordes of these light brown beauties danced across the thick metal roof… So there we are, furtively pulling up to a gate, throwing the doors wide open pouring the recorded psychobabble of the nightingale into the milky light of evening. We pause it frequently, partly out of embarrassment, partly to hear if our sonic fiction is having any effect? The air remains shallow of song. We turn it up as loud as we dare – loud enough to scare a fallow deer that had been sheltering in an adjacent field. It must have thought this was the nightingale apocalypse. We try for a full five minutes before shame and bemusement takes hold. Nothing. Not even a rasping blackbird.

I’ll never know if they were nightingales buried in that low thorny scrub. Something tells me they were and that maybe they’d been spooked, or were just passing through to other known haunts. Whatever their reasons, they’d flown and to this day I’ve still not heard a nightingale sing in the wild. Thankfully, I have Chris Watson to listen for me.

Read more from Matt at Mountain 7