Singing with nightingales

· life · nature ·

Back in the mists of time before Covid, Mr Bsag and I booked tickets for a Singing With Nightingales event (hosted by the folk singer Sam Lee) for April 2020. I had wanted to attend one of these events ever since I had heard about it, and the tickets were a 50th birthday present, partially funded by kind gifts from friends and family. I don’t need to tell you what happened next, because you were all there: lockdown happened, events were cancelled, and all of our lives contracted. I booked again for April 2021, determined not to be denied my fix of folk song and bird song, and once again, plans had to change. Luckily, this time the event was just postponed, rather than being cancelled, so last week, we set off for Sussex to attend the event. After all the waiting, all the pent-up need be somewhere other than our local area, it could have all been a huge anti-climax but (spoiler alert!) it was not. It was one of the most magical evenings of my life.

The Singing With Nightingales events (held in a secret Sussex woodland location) are a celebration of nature in general and (of course) the song of the nightingale in particular. Sam and a musical guest (we had the wonderful Lisa Knapp) sing folk songs and talk about nature around a campfire, and lead guests on a nature walk to enjoy the evening chorus before the main event with the nightingales. The woodland location is spectacularly beautiful. We were lucky to be there on probably the first dry day in a month. In the Golden Hour as the sun was starting to set, the fresh new leaves on the trees shone like stained glass in a cathedral window. The place shimmered with bird song, butterflies and wild flowers.

I love the voices of both Sam Lee and Lisa Knapp, so it was a privilege to hear them sing unaccompanied (alone and together) in such an intimate setting. In fact, after such a period of isolation, it was so moving to hear musicians singing live, and to be with other people, all listening so intently. One of the things Sam talked about was the interconnection between nightingales and human culture. The short period of about six weeks in which nightingales sing coincides with the traditional Spring festivals (May Day, Beltane, Easter and so on). The period in which we humans traditionally celebrated making it through the winter alive (with fun, feasting and — ahem — frolicking) would have had a rich soundtrack of euphoric nightingale song. While the population of nightingales has heart-breakingly dwindled, and we have mostly lost our connection to the changing seasons, the idea of celebrating making it through the winter by listening to nightingales in the night had an unexpectedly deep resonance with our current times.

After a meal and music around the campfire, we gathered after dark to walk silently through the woodland and across the fields to the place where the nightingales would be singing. In another stroke of incredible luck, the evening we attended the event was not only the night of the full moon, but a supermoon, and not just a supermoon but a blood moon. As we walked in the dark, the blood moon was just rising, appearing almost as pink as a rising sun. I’ve walked at night under a full moon many times before, and love the light and moon shadows that it casts. The light of the full moon is usually a cold colour, but this blood moon gave a warm tone to the light which only added to the dream-like feel of the whole experience.

Once we had arrived at the right place, we settled as quietly as we could to listen for the song. Sam had mentioned earlier that we might like to lie back on the grass so we could look at the stars while we listened, so that’s what I did. It might sound a bit daft, but in addition to the practical reasons for lying down (it’s much easier to keep still and therefore silent), I wanted to make myself a bit vulnerable. It’s rare for women to be able to lie down in the dark outside and feel safe. I have done it in remote places where I knew that there were no other humans around and all I had to worry about was the wildlife, but usually I am inhibited by feeling watchful and tense. In this safe environment, I wanted to abandon myself completely to the experience.

As I looked up through the grass towards the stars, I was acutely aware of the soundscape of night sounds: the frogs creaking away in a pond to the right, distant tawny owl calls and the occasional cuckoo. I could also hear nightingales singing more distantly, but unfortunately the nightingale in the thicket next to us had turned shy. Perhaps we had used up all our luck on the weather and the blood moon, but that’s wildlife watching — animals naturally go about their lives without consideration for the humans who desperately want to see or hear them. After a period of waiting, Sam and Lisa gently started singing, hoping the nightingale would be encouraged to join in, as they often are. We had tantalising moments when our male started powerful snatches of song, weaving through the human singing, but he never broke into continuous song.

If you had asked me before the event if I would be disappointed by that outcome, I might have said yes, but how could I ever feel disappointed by such a magical night? We were so privileged to be in one of the few remaining strongholds of breeding nightingales in the country: even hearing brief snippets of song was a gift that most people will never experience1. We got to hear the beautiful singing of Sam and Lisa, bringing back to life old folk songs which weave nightingales into stories of human joy and sorrow, love and loss. We watched the stars, felt the warm, damp earth support us, and listened to the sounds of the night around us. About half way through, I sat up quietly and was surprised to feel enormous tenderness for everyone in the group. We were all soft, still shapes in the dark, and you could almost feel the intensity of focused listening. I turned my head as quietly as I could to look at the moon. Mist was gently draping the fields and the blood moon made it glow a soft and dusky pink. That image, and the memory of the precious bits of nightingale song making my heart race in the dark will stay with me for a long time.

As we walked back, we were surrounded by the songs of other nightingales. It was after 1am, but Sam offered to take those of us who didn’t want to leave yet (all of us, not surprisingly) to hear one of these males in full song close up, so that we would have that experience. We didn’t stay long, but it was incredible to hear the full song. Long-time readers of this blog will know of my love of birdsong. I love them all, and have also listened to recordings of nightingale song many times. Hearing them sing live, in the dark, is a completely different experience though. It is such a powerful sound: rich and sweet, and so complex and varied that it takes your breath away. There’s a particular phrase of long, pure, whistled notes that I heard a few times which brings a lump to my throat now just remembering it. We can’t lose these birds. We can’t lose the joy of spring and the feeling of relief of having survived the winter. We can’t lose the songs.

  1. Sadly, even fewer people are likely to hear them in the future if we don’t act now to conserve habitats: nightingales are on the UK Red List of declining bird species. ↩︎