My excuse for spending May in East Anglia was to hear a nightingale… fifty years after I’d last heard them on Salthouse Heath in Norfolk. Mission accomplished… at an idyllic reserve, Fingringhoe Wick, run by the Essex Wildlife Trust. I remember walking through thick woods and scrubland on a tracery of paths, as the song of one male nightingale drifted away as another bird filled the void. The acoustics were rich and resonant: not just loud, but with an echoing effect, as though the birdsong had been switched from mono to stereo. The experience was about listening rather than watching. The foliage at Fingringhoe Wick was so thick that nightingales and warblers could sing a few feet away from visitors, yet stay concealed.
I could have heard nightingales at any time in the last fifty years, simply by heading to the south-east. Nightingale numbers are down, and there are just a few strongholds where they can still be found. Fingringhoe Wick provided just the right combination of habitats - thick cover, open spaces, water and heathland - to support a nightingale population which, as one of the wardens told me, is on the increase.
I expected to see birds such as marsh harrier, bearded tit, bittern and avocet; I just didn’t know how widespread they are these days. Avocets have made a remarkable comeback, having been reduced to a handful of nesting pairs a generation ago. Now they’re everywhere along England’s east coast - right up to the Scottish border, I’m told - wherever the coastal habitat is to their liking. At Minsmere I must have seen more than a hundred avocets, nesting on the islands, and their fluffy offspring. There were smaller numbers at the other reserves I visited. Wherever there were reedbeds I saw marsh harriers.
You know a bird has become common when bird-watchers no longer mention them. From the status of rare vagrants, little egrets have become ubiquitous. I was lucky enough to see a spoonbill; they, too, may colonise the southen counties as our climate changes. Storks and cranes may be next. I heard Cetti’s Warblers at most reserves, when I hadn’t expected to hear any. Other birds have not done so well. I didn’t see a single owl, treecreeper, bullfinch, redstart, corn bunting or spotted flycatcher, in places where I would have expected to find them.
Highlights… A dartford warbler displaying on a sprig of gorse at Dunwich Heath… A bittern in flight at Lakenheath Fen… Red-necked pharalope yesterday - a tiny bundle of energy - and a pair of spotted redshanks… A pair of marsh harriers in their display flight… Actually, there were so many highlights, and the best part was re-discovering what first attracted me to birds all those years ago. It’s not about ‘ticking off’ the rarities; it’s about the whole experience of being out in the landscape, with eyes and ears open…