The first Nightingales should be appearing at sites in southern England in early April – perhaps even the last few days of March if conditions are favorable. The main arrival usually occurs in mid April, with males generally returning to the same sites year after year. Nightingales have specific habitat requirements and are usually found in dense scrub or coppiced woodland, often in damp low-lying areas. Often difficult to see, their presence is usually given away by their famously rich song, but it is a sound that has been disappearing from tracts of the British countryside over the last few decades.
The Nightingale is principally a bird of Mediterranean climates and, as such, its range has probably always been limited in Britain, which is at the northern edge of the species' range. The species was certainly much more numerous through the 19th and early part of the 20th century than is now the case, with small numbers found west to Devon and South Wales and north as far as Cheshire and North Yorkshire. Declines were first noted towards the edge of the range in the 1920s but there appears to have been a steady reduction in numbers since the 1950s, resulting in the loss of this species from counties such as Devon, Shropshire and Nottinghamshire in the last 20 years.
Concerns about the continued decline of this much-loved species prompted the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to launch a Nightingale Appeal in 1998. The generosity of BTO members, the public at large and the Esmée Fairbairn Charitable Trust ensured that sufficient funds were raised for a national survey in 1999 - the first for 20 years. This survey revealed that the national population now numbers around 6,700 singing males, but that the great majority of these are now in the extreme southeast of England and that further north and west, populations are now very small and isolated. Strongholds are in Kent, East Sussex, Essex, Suffolk and parts of Norfolk. Small, but apparently healthy, populations are found as far west as Somerset Levels and as far north as Thorne Moors in Yorkshire. The greatest losses in recent years have been in the Midlands, where this once-familiar species is now perilously close to extinction in many counties.
The reasons for decline in Nightingale numbers in Britain are not known, but several factors may be involved, including climatic changes both in Britain and on the African wintering grounds. It is difficult to foresee what effect global warming will have on Nightingales. Warmer springs and summers may well be beneficial for a bird that is so common in Mediterranean countries. However, wetter springs could be disastrous for breeding success while the other extreme, drought, could result in favoured wet scrubby sites drying out and becoming unsuitable. Habitat loss has certainly been an important factor in some areas and BTO research, funded by Anglian Water, has highlighted the very specific habitat requirements of this species. A leaflet Creating and managing habitat for the Nightingale is available from the BTO. Please send an SAE to: Sam Rider, BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2LP.
WHERE TO FIND NIGHTINGALES
Fingringhoe Wick (Essex
Wildlife Trust), 5 miles from Colchester - TM046197.
Abberton Reservoir (Essex Wildlife Trust), 6 miles SW of Colchester - TL963185.
Stour Estuary (RSPB), 5 miles W of Harwich - TM191310.
Bradfield Woods (Suffolk Wildlife Trust), 7 miles SE of Bury
St. Edmunds - TL935581.
Lackford Wildfowl Reserve (Suffolk Wildlife Trust), 5 miles NW of Bury St. Edmunds - TL803708.
Minsmere (RSPB) - TM452680.
Walberswick (English Nature) - TM475733.