Caught by the River

Singing with Nightingales

9th May 2019

Kirsten Downer braves the dark, cold and wet of an Essex nature reserve for the chance to hear musicians and nightingales duet

Just when did nightingales become synonymous with suffering? Keats, Coleridge and Milton set the tone a few hundred years ago and the tradition is reinforcing itself tonight.

It’s dark, wet and I’m still slowly shuffling one frozen foot in front of the other through the Essex flagship nature reserve of Fingeringhoe. I’m finding it tiring to walk so slowly, and it feels like we’ve been doing this for hours. The weather’s changed and cold winds are bearing down from the east, along with short squalls of cold rain. I’m keenly aware of my 80-year-old mother walking slowly in the dark in front of me; I’m fervently hoping she’s not experiencing symptoms of hypothermia.

We’re here to listen to nightingale song, something I have never heard in real life before, and if we’re lucky, hear musicians and nightingales duet. There are more than 40 breeding pairs here and we know they’re undaunted by rain and wind, unlike us. I want to hear the sound before it dies out in the UK altogether – experts say this could happen within 30 years, nightingale numbers having plummeted by 90 per cent since the 60s. So rare is the bird now, listening to its song has become something of a ritual fetish. The evening began convivially but once we set out into the woods we were urged to give ourselves over to silence , single-file tramping and a state of ‘meditative journeying’.

While I love meditation and the odd shamanic trance on occasion, I would be enjoying the evening more if we could whisper quietly to each other, or the guide could send us the occasional communication about logistics – especially as I know that the nightingales here are accustomed to noise from regular visitors. It all feels unncessarily po-faced and serious.

It’s partly my mood – a wrongly set Sat Nav took us 2.5 hours to get out of London. And the organisers can hardly be blamed for the weather. But the anaemic fire wasn’t big enough to warm people sitting closer to it than me, and certainly not the 100 plus people gathered in this Essex glade.

We’re in the company of fantastically talented musicians – and not just the avian ones. Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee’s nostalgic, yearning voice opened the evening, and throughout the night we’re treated to the harp music of Serafina Steer, the fiddle music of Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and the electronica of Cosmo Sheldrake. The night is part of a series of Singing with Nightingale events held throughout south-east England by the Nest Collective and Sam Lee, in a bid to reconnect the British public with this bird, whose song was once the soundtrack of spring.

Caoimhin O Raghallaigh is a brilliant musician, playing a unique 10-string fiddle called the hardanger d’amore. But on this night he doesn’t do it for me as he sticks to a repertoire of scratches, plucking sounds, and whispers, interspersed with only occasional bursts of piercing beauty. At first I marvel at the strange sounds he’s conjuring but after a while I’m merely cold and bored and my Inner Pleb silently screams: Just play us a tune mate. I imagine he’s trying to spark one of the nightingales into a duet but so far, it’s not working. All I can hear in the distance is the honking of a coot, and the occasional train in the far distance.

We walk on, turn a corner and spy a huge concert harp shining mystically within a partially-lit gazebo, like something out of Lord of the Rings. Serafina Steer’s fingers must be frozen, but golden notes fill the air. I lie down on my blanket and give myself up to gravity. Alongside the harp a nightingale sings at the edge of the clearing. It’s not so much a duet as the bird carrying on regardless, but the notes go well together.

On our way back we make an unscheduled stop on a small path between scrub and trees. Right there, perhaps close enough to touch, a nightingale sings furiously. This is the musician we all came for.

It’s not melancholy at all – if anything it’s extroverted, bold and determined; it’s showing off, for sure. Now I’ve heard a nightingale, the sound is unmistakable, and it’s far louder than anything else. It’s technically brilliant in the same virtuoso way that Eminem showcases his hyperspeed bars and intricate wordplay, or Coltrane sprints across harmonies. One study found a male nightingale using 250 different phrases compiled from a repertoire of 600 different sound units.

There are two characteristic bits to nightingale song: a series of heart-stopping whistles building in orgasmic intensity and a throbbing drumming sound. And then there’s a whole heap of other harsher, rhythmic sounds; croaking, grating, clicking. The sound is so powerful it’s almost as if it’s got its own amplifier; bird sounds expert Geoff Simple says the nightingale ‘blasts rather like an operatic diva or a lead guitar in a heavy metal band.’

For twenty minutes in the dark and cold, we stand there. This is a pilgrimage, and we’ve been blessed by a visitation. The bird shows no sign of stopping. Eventually we have to give in and move off, but I know that I will now be tuned in to the sound of a nightingale wherever I go.


A few days later and I’m in central London, again with the Nest Collective and Sam Lee, who are closing the Extinction Rebellion 10 day protest through an interactive concert: ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. Taking the romantic wartime hit as the starting point, we’re going to harness mobile phone technology to bring the sound of the nightingale back to Berkeley Square – where perhaps it could be heard once, hundreds of years ago.

A large crowd gathers under magnificent plane trees, and the colourful XR banners swell in the breeze like Buddhist prayer flags. Sam has reworked the lyrics slightly. We sing:

I may be right, I may be wrong, but I’m perfectly willing to swear

That we can turn this world around

And make nightingales sing…in Berkeley Square.

The song catches in my throat unexpectedly. Touching the grief and hope right at the core of Extinction Rebellion. It’s not just about the nightingale. It’s a metaphor for pulling the world back from the brink of mass extinction.

And perhaps the idea of nightingales returning to London isn’t so crazy. Berlin has at least 1300 breeding nightingales – dwarfing the 40 plus of Essex Wildlife Trust’s flagship nature reserve. Berlin is more firmly in the bird’s natural range whereas the UK has always been at its edge – but it’s not just that. Nightingales love undergrowth and scrub and Berlin is still a city of unkempt green spaces and brownfield sites – it wasn’t called ‘poor but sexy’ for nothing. Cycling is safer there, cars less welcome. The Berlin nightingales have made the most of these opportunities; their population growing by 6 % annually since 2006. There, Berlin birds hang out by busy roads and streetlights; some researchers even reckon their song bears resemblance to German techno. Musicians are duetting with them there too: interspecies music guru David Rothenburg’s film and book about their exploits comes out this very month. A capital city can offer sanctuary for this amazing bird – and great music come out of it.

Extinction Rebellion achieved more in ten days than we thought possible. Its demands are huge and necessary – perhaps impossible, but we have to try. In Berkeley Square, the nightingale’s song combines with traffic noise, laughter, parakeets, the fiddles, trumpets and voices of roving musicians. It’s a glorious crucible of surreal, anarchic sound.

Kirsten Downer is a writer, activist and educator. You can read her blog here.