Friday, 14 August 2015


Nightingale - a short-lived species

NIGHTINGALE expert Graham Hopwood was in good form when he gave a talk on this iconic bird to a meeting of the Grimsby and Cleethorpes  branch of the RSPB.

He started his presentation by suggesting  that the 60 or so attendees at the Corpus Christi church hall on Grimsby Road might like to  close their eyes during  the recording he played of a bird in full voice.

He apologised that the volume - via a laptop computer -  was not louder, joking that he should have brought with him a ghetto blaster!

 Midway between the size of blackbirds and robins (to which they are related), nightingales are summer visitors from Ghana and other parts of West Africa, reaching England in April.

Males singfrom the time of their arrival until mid-June.

Alas, not only has their specialied  habitat of really dense woodland scrub almost disappeared in Lincolnshire but the south of the county is  at the northern edge of their breeding range (though it is conceivable this may expand through climate change).

According to Graham, the nightingale  population of England (it is not found or heard in Scotland or Wales)  has declined by as much as 90 per cent since 1960, making it a very rare bird, particularly  outside certain favoured parts of South Suffolk, Kent and Surrey

The 1980 Lincolnshire Bird Report, records some 100 singing males in Lincolnshire, but, by 2012, that figure had plummeted to 34 at most.

There is now only a single place in Lincolnshire where three or four pairs nest -  Whisby Nature Reserve, on the outskirts of Lincoln, where Graham is assistant warden, employed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

Since taking up the appointment 11 years ago, he has been diligently tracking the specific territories of Whisby's singing nightingales, monitoring their numbers and doing everything possible to oversee the creation of ideal nesting habitat - notably by replacing sycamore trees with thickets of really dense blackthorn and hawthorn interspersed with wild rose, bramble and nettles.

 Despite his best efforts, there is no guarantee that the reserve's nightingales have a long-term future. The population may not be sufficiently large to sustain itself, and the gene pool is unlikely to be enriched because there is no other known breeding presence of the species within 40 miles.

The nightingale is also a relatively short-lived bird - the average lifespan being no more than three years.

 Graham revealed that one of his biggest bugbears at Whisby was  the irresponsible behaviour  of a surprisingly large number of dog owners who disregard notices asking them to keep their pets on leads.

 "I like dogs,"he said. "But the attitude of some of their owners makes my blood boil.

"I plead with dog owners but many take not the slightest bit of notice. They say their dogs would never harm wildlife.

"The fact is that an out-of-control dog - spaniels tends to be the worst - can prompt a hen nightingale to leave her nest. And a vacated nest is one whose eggs are liable to fall victim to a predator."

In theory, nightingale friendly-habitat could be created in other Lincolnshire nature reserves or country parks, but such an initiative  would probably be futile - there are simply too few nightingales, and the disturbance they would face  would be colossal.

Happily, the species is common in Mediterranean Europe where the birds are generally more conspicuous and less demanding in their habitat requirements than their English counterparts.

Bizarrely, those nightingales that come to our shores seem to take on the characteristics of English people - they become retiring, reserved  and less extrovert than their Mediterranean counterparts!  

Photo: Carlos Delgadio, via Wikipedia

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