Hearing the Nightingale Sing

Posted on: 3 May 2019 by Sarah Westcott in Ecology and Environment

Poet Sarah Westcott listens to nightingales in the Kent marshes.

Hearing the Nightingale Sing

Kent, early May, 2019.

The North Kent marshes feel just off-kilter in their relationship with the Thames; low-lying on the south side of the working river. I park at the RSPB Cliffe Pools reserve and enter an eerie scene of disused clay pits flooded with water. There is a cacophony of gulls; the sort of racket found above landfill sites. A pair of avocets take off on parallel flight-paths, their upturned beaks in profile against the grey skies. A container ship glides along the horizon, serene and surreal.

The dog and I walk on through a moonscape of clay pits, brimming with grey-brown water, and edged with blackthorn scrub. The ground is flinty and baked; the skies full of black-headed gulls. It is easy to feel the Gothic lure of such a landscape; exposed and isolated and on the edges of human awareness. The sound of a working aggregate plant grinds away.

It is strange to think London is just 20 miles from here. High noon; no-one else seems to be around and I am drawn into a weave of birdsong as I walk. I am not consciously listening for nightingales and when I hear the distinctive song I have to check I am not fooling myself. We stop and listen harder - there it is - the voice I have heard online. I look towards the source and can just make out the form of a small brown bird, high on his song-post. He goes on singing, embellishing with riffs and peeps - almost extra-terrestrial in his tone, almost digital in his precision, yet plangent and singular. Just this drab bird in the tree. I can see his beak opening, and think of his syrinx, its double-fluting. Keats was right, when he wrote of the nightingale singing in ‘full-throated ease’. There is something so easeful in the nightingales’ song, matched only by the blackbird perhaps, almost unearthly in its singularity.

We walk on. I hear more nightingales as we go - at intervals of 50 metres or so, many deep in scrub and although all are recognisably nightingales, they seem to sing their song differently. It is as if they are playing through the medium of their own voice. They are male birds of course; I think of the females listening and wonder at the birds’ resilience against our own scale of things - recent arrivals from Africa. I wonder what they eat and how safe they must feel here in the thick scrub and whether they have mated yet.

Despite the blown-open skies, this landscape has a darkness about it - as if it carries the particulates of industry (perhaps it does). Swarms of midge rise over the pools and the air feels stilled and held by something just beyond visibility. In Victorian times when clay consumption was at its peak, this ground was a barren extraction site. There remains a mutability about the place; something held back between the pools and the working river.

I sit amongst some rabbit droppings to eat my sandwich. A white egret lifts; spectral bride. Some kind of tit chinks repeatedly like glass marbles knocking together. More giant ships glide across the horizon like giant bergs, on their way to the low countries and out into the North Sea.

On the way back to the car-park I hear the soft voice of a cuckoo but the nightingales are silent. It is mid-afternoon and a packet of caterpillars has loosened; dozens writhe on leaves, lifting their ends as if testing the spring air. I walk amongst dried stalks of teasel and wonder if nightingales tire of singing in the afternoons.

How to describe bird-song? The closest we can get to the nightingale is to listen to it, I suppose.

I have become obsessed with birdsong this spring. I download an RSPB single of birdsong and listen to it late at night. It feels like the birds are in my room. I hear them with a sense of grief but I don’t know where to place it.

There are no nightingales in this part of the city now. Outside our bedroom window, I sometimes watch a small charm of goldfinch gather and disperse in a sort of girlish rush. Every evening, a male blackbird takes his favoured song post at the top of a pear tree and sings. In another garden, another answers, and another, until this patch of suburbia is garlanded with territorial song.