Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Fled is that music

a whitethroat, because I don't have a picture of a nightingale

Years ago, I was heading down to the Correze on my motorbike. I'd been riding for hours, and it was sometime around midnight. I was in a hilly, wooded area with Angouleme behind me, and enjoying the experience of travelling through somewhere I'd never been before. I stopped for a stretch. I switched the engine off, and as the engine cooled it made TINKing noises, but all was otherwise silent.

Except for a nightingale singing.

It was the first time I'd heard a nightingale in real life (though I'd heard it accompanied by cellos and by Lancaster bombers, courtesy of the BBC) , and it was beautiful.

I've heard nightingales in other parts of France since then, but not yet in England. When I first moved to Bristol I thought that Nightingale Valley, in the Avon Gorge, sounded hopeful, but an evening listening there produced nothing much more than distant revelry from Clifton. I am assured, though, by no less a person than The Finest Swordsman in France, that nightingales can be heard singing in Clifton, where he may often be found wobbling around long after the pubs have closed. When he makes this sort of pronouncement, I simply nod in agreement and forbear to mention that blackbirds too can, as the song says, sing in the dead of night; and sing beautifully; they are relatives of the nightingale, after all.

So, with the weather being so sunny and calm on Sunday, we went over to Inglestone Common, where I had heard of nightingales. Inglestone Common lies below the western flank of the Cotswolds, and is a slightly boggy, heathy, scrubby, woody sort of place, and therefore a good place for birds. We arrived quite late, to give the other birds a chance to go to bed. Indeed, with not a breath of a breeze, it could hardly have been more quiet. Bats flitted past us, so close that I could hear their wings fluttering, little leathery outboard motor sounds. We walked for some time. It was quite chilly now; the cold air was flowing down from the hills and forming a gentle breeze. The bats clocked off; I guess the insects had gone to bed too. And the nightingales, being English nightingales, had had an early night with some Horlicks, presumably.

We drove off. "That's the trouble with actively going out birdwatching," I said; "If you don't see what you set off to see, it feels like failure. Accidental birdwatching is much better."

Fortunately, the engine overheated a little while later, so we had an adventure after all. But that's another story.

And I will remember the sound of the bat's wings.