Blanche and Helen - 8 More on the Nightingale
Mr. Wainwright continued his lecture.
“Here is a summarised account of the treat they received written by Mr. Heys and Mr. Watson, two ornithological members of the Manchester Field Naturalists' Society.
“In consequence of information received that there was a nightingale, which could be heard in the woods near the Strines Printworks, we decided upon a visit to that locality, and we soon found ourselves in the immediate neighbourhood of the oak tree, not yet in full leaf, which has been selected and where we were informed the songster sits night after night, from the hour of ten until long after midnight, delighting with his melody the hundreds who assemble in the fields and lanes around. The spot selected seems singularly inappropriate, for the "navvies" are busily at work on the new line of railway which is being made from Hyde to New Mills, and there is a considerable embankment being raised just opposite, and only a very short distance lower down the side of the hill, where the men are busily employed at work all day "tipping" loads of stone and earth. It might have been expected that the noise caused by a body of men in such near neighbourboods would have scared all birds from the place. Such, however, is not the fact.
We were delighted to find ourselves on the ground just in time to hear the first twittering notes. The manner in which the bird seemed to trifle with the notes and try various scraps of song, reminded one of the performers in the orchestra, who run over scraps of melody just before a concert commences, trying their instruments again and again. After a few minutes spent in this sort of dalliance, the song gradually became fuller and stronger, and there was a more connected strain. The song is certainly very peculiar and such as would not be likely, after having once been heard, to be ever mistaken for any other. Sometimes there is a repetition of the same note for some fifteen or twenty times, the effect of which is very singular; and this repetition is always given with a gradual crescendo and very often terminates the song abruptly - indeed the bird seems to delight in leading you on through a delicious strain and then suddenly balking you by an abrupt pause; then he recommences with a totally different song, often introducing a long warble, interrupted by a rapid utterance of "chug, chug, chug, chug, chug," which is different from anything we ever heard before.
“Although there would be several hundred people together, laughing and chatting; now and then a blaze flaring up as some one struck a match to light his pipe; or a crash amongst the underwood as a sturdy club was broken away for protection during the midnight journey homeward; yet, amid all this noise and light, the bird continued singing, with only such pauses as are peculiar to its song. We remained at the place until near midnight, and could hear the song in the distance long after having started on our return home.
“The nightingale is the Motacilla Luscinia of Linnreus; it is a small bird about six inches in length; it is migratory, and the cock bird usually precedes the hen by ten days or a fortnight, probably for the purpose of selecting the most favourable place for building the nest. It has been stated that the nightingale has a special fondness for districts where the cowslip grows abundantly, and this may very probably be the case, as this flower may afford food to some particular larva which may form the most dainty part of the nightingale's dinner. The nest is usually built at the bottom of thick, inaccessible hedges, where the keenest-sighted truant boy would hardly be likely to penetrate. The bird is very quiet and boobyish, and would not easily be disturbed from her nest. She has also another protection in the song of her lord, who takes up his position in a bush or tree far away from the nest, but still within hearing; thus preventing any clue to the exact spot.
What says the poet Montgomery
“The bird that soars on highest wing,
Builds on the ground her lowly nest;
And she that doth most sweetly sing,
Sings in the shade when all things rest:
In lark and nightingale we see
What honour hath humility."
“It is worthy of remark, that though I often listened, I never could satisfy myself that I heard its famous song in the day time. Without doubt it does sing then, but I could never distinguish it clearly from the other songsters. Curiously enough, indeed with almost ridiculous punctuality, it commenced its evensong at ten o'clock. On one memorable night we were waiting for the start; the party were incredulous as to exact time of tuning up, and to while away five minutes, I was urged to recite Cowper's well known poem "The Nightingale and the Glow-worm," which was no sooner finished than the clock struck ten, and the bird struck its key note at the same instant. It was close by this spot that glow-worms were so plentiful; I have frequently seen the bank literally studded with their living emeralds on a dark night.
On Saturday night there could not have been less than a thousand people present and the uproar and tumult among some sections of the crowd were really abominable. They were actually braying in imitation of donkeys until I begun to despair of the bird singing at all. Presently a low "whirr" was heard and then another, and in an instant the most breathless silence prevailed in the whole multitude, and for about half an hour there was a treat for all,
We had a misgiving that there was one knot of men in the crowd who meant mischief, they were suspicious looking, and though very orderly then, they were close by for several hours and had a lantern with them, and I noticed a light under the bush from my house at 1.15. The bird was still singing.
This was really the last occasion the bird was known to sing. The damage done to the crops and fences by the revelling crowds which came every night, began to be rather serious for the neighbouring farmer, and it was said that he shot the famous vocalist, but this was never proved.
It is a very small bird, very difficult to distinguish even the daytime and still more difficult to see at night. More likely it was scared away by the great crowds of people. Anyhow, its serenade was only continued for a little over a fortnight.”
There was polite applause, and we passed around the picture of the nightingale. Helen surprised everyone as she had brought a copy of Lloyd’s Natural History, British Birds, Vol. 1, and passed it around as well, with its very fine hand painted pictures of birds, including the nightingale.
“I am very impressed, Mrs. Morrison, to see you have this fine book. Do you also have the other books from the series?”
“Indeed I do, Mr. Stirrup, and they were given to me by my late husband for Christmas in the year before he died, so I value them very highly.”
“And did you read the entry for the nightingale before you came?”
“Yes, I did, Mr. Wainwright, and I found your account of it very fascinating - and made the words on the page much more meaningful after hearing of your personal experience.”
“Can you add anything from your reading to enlighten us further?”
“Well, I could hardly do that, as you are the experts in the field and I am only a dabbler and most amateur in my interest.”
“What does the book say?”
“It mentions that the male and female are very alike in colouring, with the male being perhaps ½ inch larger. The young are a duller brown than the parents and mottled with markings near the tips of the feathers, with the under body dingy white. It also says that it is found seldom in the north, possibly in Yorkshire and occasionally in Cheshire, but they doubt its occurrence in Lancashire and it is unrecorded in Scotland. In winter it visits North-eastern Africa.
“It is a ground feeder, and picks up worms, ants and other insects and larvae, while the young are said to be fed entirely on caterpillars. In autumn it feeds on fruit and berries like the warblers. The nest is formed of dead leaves and grass, with a somewhat ragged appearance, but the inside is finished off and rather deep and lined with rootlets and occasionally with horsehair. There are usually four or five eggs of olive-green or dull bluefish green.”
Mr. Waddington then said, “I have never heard a nightingale, but your talk, Mr. Wainwright makes me determined to do all that I can to have that experience. I suppose I shall have to wait now until next spring. I wonder how many of you here tonight, have heard this bird sing.”
They all seemed to indicate that they had, except for Helen.
We serving girls were now hustled back into the kitchen and reappeared a few minutes later, each carrying a tray of tasty morsels which we would replace with other goodies once the first lot was empty. Filled wine glasses were also handed around, and refilled several times. Then it was time for us to return to the kitchen and the cleaning up procedure. As I was passing in the hallway, I heard Mr. Warrington’s voice.
“What a treat you have all had. I can only hope that Mrs. Morrison and I may be privileged enough to be able to say that we have heard a nightingale by this time next year. Thank you so much, Mr. Wainwright, for your generous hospitality.”
Then turning to her, he said in a soft voice, “May I see you home, Mrs. Morrison?”
“Oh, but it is far out of your way.”
“But I couldn’t possibly allow you to travel the distance in the dark on your own. I would be most pleased to take you to your door.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Warrington. I do accept your offer.”
We could see out of the kitchen windows as they left. Some had come by their own carriages which were parked behind this huge and luxurious house. Others were staying with friends in Marple Bridge, and started off walking down the road. An hour or so later, I too was on my way back home.