The month of May would not be complete without hearing Britain's ultimate songbird, the Nightingale in action.
The Nightingale is one of our best loved and iconic birds and has been celebrated in folklore, art and poetry across the centuries. At Castor Hanglands National Nature Reserve near Peterborough, the rich and melodic tones of the Nightingale can be heard.
Sadly, all is not well with Britain's Nightingale population. In recent decades their numbers have declined. They are still present, but remaining Nightingale sites are mainly in the south and east of England. Nightingales are migratory birds, commuting twice a year between breeding areas in Europe and wintering areas in West Africa - some 3000 miles each way. In recent years, the Nightingale population has been relatively stable at Castor Hanglands, but overall numbers of Nightingales have declined since the 1960s. There is no room for complacency.
Further information on Nightingale numbers in the UK can be found on the British Trust for Ornithology website.
To keep the Nightingales singing at Castor Hanglands and breeding successfully, requires active woodland management. This includes, rotational cutting of scrubby bushes and coppicing small trees, that is, cutting them back to the ground, so that they produce the prefered dense new growth that Nightingales like to nest in.
Male Nightingales appear to be site faithful and they return to the same site year after year. This gives some hope because if the habitat can be managed appropriately, the population is likely to persist and we can continue to be enthralled and inspired during that all too brief period every Spring.
This is why a partnership between Natural England and Nene Coppicing and Crafts is so important to manage this special place for Nightingales and other wildlife.
Matthew Robinson, from Nene Coppicing and Crafts, says, '' We teach woodland crafts and work with a range of groups. Throughout the year we have weekly community days, where local people can help us manage the woodland and scrub areas, whilst they learn new skills and make new friends. We are an entirely voluntary organisation.''
Nightingales need you! Will you help?
It is great to have volunteers to help at Castor Hanglands, with the reserve management.
Senior Reserve Warden, Chris Gardiner explains, '' To secure the future of Nightingales at Castor Hanglands we need financial support to fence new areas of trees; tools and equipment for volunteers to use. We also need to invest in a portable charcoal kiln, allowing us to continue a centuries-old craft in a modern way, and so sustainably process woodland products.''
As well as financial help we also rely on volunteers at the reserve, to assist with the management and monitoring of the site such as recording Nightingale, butterfly and dragonfly numbers. Areas of suitable habitat, and those that need restoration work can then be mapped. Reseach has shown that, Nightingales like areas of scrub at different stages of growth and height, rather than uniform scrubby areas.
At Castor Hanglands during the latter half of April and all through May around 30 male Nightingales compete for females and defend their territories, by performing their enticing song, from within dense scrub and woodland.
Occasionally, a Nightingale will appear, perched at the top of a thicket and sing in full view for a short while. It's a magical moment - it's as if the bird needs to check what's going on before retreating to the safety of the scrub.
The Nightingales at Castor Hanglands are joined by a supporting chorus of Blackcaps, Willow Warblers, Whitethroats, Bullfinches and a few Turtle Doves. An early morning visit during May is not a quiet affair - it is a riot of celebratory song!
Castor Hanglands is not just a good place for birds. With its unique mixture of ancient woodland, grassy meadows, thickets of scrub, and spring-fed ponds, the reserve is home to a fantastic range of wildlife, with many species of butterflies along with amphibians such as Grass Snakes, Toads and Great Crested Newts.
Stretch target for Keep the Nightingales Singing ( If we exceed the £5000 target we can use any additional funds to develop the project even further)
A further £3000 would enable a volunteer hut to be built. On the reserve there are many practical tasks to be undertaken and there is a need to establish a volunteer base. Intially this would be a wet weather shelter, but ideally it would be a hut with electricity, so volunteers could make cups of tea! At several places in Castor Hanglands the footpath needs to be improved, so there will be better access for all.
Nightingales in Poetry
Northamptonshire's 'peasant poet' John Clare walked in the glades of Castor Hanglands 200 years ago, much of his poetry was inspired by the birds, flowers and landscape of this special place. John Clare wrote many poems and one the most famous must be,
The Nightgale's Nest by John Clare(extract)
But when a day or two confirms her stay
Boldly she sings loud for half the day:
And soon the village brings the woodman's tale
Of having heard the new-come Nightingale.
Thank you for your support in enabling this project to develop and save the Nightingales of Castor Hanglands. If you would like any further details contact Catherine Weightman firstname.lastname@example.org or Chris Gardiner email@example.com