Owning a wood, I enjoy spending quiet time alone with the trees; listening to the sounds of birds and other wildlife. However, I’ve never heard musicians playing along to bird song. I found out about an event Singing with Nightingales, last year on a visit to a RSPB Nature reserve, just a few miles from our wood in Gloucestershire. As soon as tickets went on sale I booked up. It’s hosted by the folk singer Sam Lee.

Their website says:

Let us start by saying what Singing With Nightingales is not… SWN is neither an ecology walk, a bird-watching expedition, or even a concert. It is a work of immersive theatre, staged by nature, told by humans and outshone by a very special bird.

I was booked for Thursday 25th April. It had rained a lot that week and the site is known for the mud. We were also told to dress warmly and to wear natural fibres, not the rustling of hi tech modern outdoor clothes. Indeed, there was a 13 page document to get you prepared for the event.

I knew where I was going, arrived around 6.30pm, time to park have a chat about woodlands and nature and trudge through the mud to the camp. It really was muddy, and the mud was trying to suck my boots off my feet.  I was glad I’d brought my shooting stick (feeling good as I’d have something to perch on if there was a lot of standing).

We were told to dress warm so I also took my floor length woollen cape. It doesn’t rustle but is now covered in mud along the bottom.

I followed the directions, reached the camp and spoke with Suntou Susso the guest musician for the evening. He is from Senegal which is where the nightingales go in our winter. Get a taste of his music here.

We could help ourselves to a drink, there was an intro briefing and a group photo. I chatted to people sat on both sides of me, both absolutely fascinated that I had gone out and bought a wood.

The camp fire was lit and we sat in a circle on benches with sheepskins. There were a few lanterns, but mainly we had moonlight. Our eyes were adjusting to this.

We then went on our first walk to learn more about the ecology of the area. This was even more muddy!  Alongside the talk there was bird song. On return there was food, more conversation and then we had a talk and music.  It is only the male nightingale that sings, but the females also sing calls to warn others.

An interesting story was how birds will communicate, one to another to warn that, for example, there is a fox with three cubs a mile up ahead.  We were listening to the bird sounds and trying to identify them – not just a woodpecker or owl, but which species and male or female. I’m not great at this!

We were told the story of the nightingale, and how they numbers are dropping significantly. There has been a 50% decline in numbers over the last 30 years and less than 5,000 singing males in England, mainly in the South East. Highnam Woods is close to the edge for the nightingale song to be heard. I did hear one in our wood last year, and saw it fly by. But only once.

We saw bluebells but there are many more in my own wood. It really makes me so happy that I am fortunate to be a wood owner.

What we should and shouldn’t do

We were encouraged to eat organic, and to eat wild venison as the deer, whilst lovely are a pest in woodland. To spend more time in nature and to walk slower and to focus on the sounds of nature.

We were also told that most banks (Barclays and HSBC were specifically mentioned as offenders) invest heavily in fossil fuels (Since the Paris Agreement was signed, banks have pumped over £4.4 trillion into the fossil fuel industry) and we should vote with our feet and move to a more environmentally friendly bank.

At 22.45 – I checked my watch and it was exactly that time, we walked to where the musicians would sing with the nightingales. We walked like a wolf pack with the older and slower people up front so we walked at the pace of the slowest. This was in a different part of the wood, and the toughest walk, we had to walk slowly and carefully through the mud. A few helpers were at the worst bits to offer an arm to steady us.

It was also dark. We were not allowed to use torches and I relied on my stick.

We reached the spot, Both Sam and Suntou Susso played. The music was lovely and as birds sang the songs changed, more softly so it was like a duet. But the ground was so soft that my stick was going deeper and deeper into the ground. So I ended up standing most of the time and it was hard on my knees and back. We did hear a nightingale here and also at the camp.

Well over an hour later we walked back, closer to the carpark and it was a chance to comment on the experience.

I got home about 01.15. I was exhausted but delighted to have attended. It’s another experience to add to my memory box of stories to share when I reach old-old age.

The Nightingale

The Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) is a small, brown, unremarkable-looking bird, but they possess one of nature’s finest singing voices. The English population winters in Sub-Saharan Africa in the western countries like Sierra Leon and Senegal, returning to the very same thicket they were born in arriving in early to mid-April. They spend April to the end of May mating and nesting where we can encounter the extraordinary display of the males’ courtship song, famous for his all-night broadcast.

Worldwide, the population is reasonably stable but the numbers visiting England have declined so sharply that they are now on the UK’s Red List of species of the greatest conservation concern. In this age of perilous biodiversity crisis and regular species extinctions, with habitats in the UK being threatened and eroded, the Nightingale has become representative of all that we have to lose culturally as well as ecologically.

The name ‘Nightingale’ comes from the Old English ‘Night wind or voice’ or the night songstress – reflecting the long-held belief that they were female birds that sang. In fact, the singers are the males – trying either to attract a mate or to protect territory.

One of the most memorable features of Nightingale’s song is his rich variety – taking in mellow tones, flute-like sequences and a wide array of jugs, chatters, rattles and whistles. A typical singer may use 180 different riffs while a truly accomplished performer may incorporate around 250 with over 1500 sounds. They are famous for never repeating a phrase and most notably for us, their ability to accept and incorporate human-made sounds or songs into their performance. A remarkable and virtuosic bird, Nightingales have long been the muse of poets, singers, folk artists, musicians, writers, composers and myth makers. For an extensive biography of this extraordinary creature please see Sam Lee’s book.

Coaching Conversations and Nature Retreats in a private wood

I offer my services in a woodland setting; we can get away from Zoom. If this is of interest let me know.