Melting into a shadow

Juvenile Nightingale (Martin Kelsey)

As dusk approaches, a dark and long-legged sprite bounds into view. Its effortless long hops  make the bird seem weightless, or at least as light as a feather. As it lands it holds its slender body upright, wings droop slightly and the tail raises just above the horizontal. It peers quizzically sideways and leans forward. Changing its mind, with its tail making a hesitant quiver, it springs into another three hops. A pause again, but this time a peck and its tweezer-like bill nips up an ant from the stone paving.  

The tail is burnt sienna in colour, its upperparts duller brown with a greyish paler wash below. The combination of pale buffy spots on its back and wing-coverts and its mottled head and breast suggest a young bird. It is indeed a juvenile Nightingale, just starting to venture out on its own. It is not bothered by my presence, hopping to within two metres from me, and then only diverting away thanks to the distraction of the harvester ant trail nearby. 

The juvenile's father, the male Nightingale in full song in April (Martin Kelsey) 

It is the offspring of the Nightingale that accompanied our lockdown. All April he sang through day and night in the trees close to the house, loudest in the early hours, stamping his presence in glorious decibels. Together with his mate, they nested in the garden and one of their brood now accompanies me every evening.

No longer is there springtime song, that embracing flow of liquid richness. Instead, the Nightingales now utter a loud grating croak, sometimes described as frog-like, but more like a mechanical ratchet. When especially alarmed, they give a piercing truncated whistle, jarring and strident.

I have seen his parents around too, their feathers looking tired and patchy. They are starting to moult and will take about 45 days to replace all of their feathers. This ensures that they are in fit condition as they embark on their journey across the Sahara to spend the winter in Central Africa. The youngster will lose its spots over the next few weeks, so that when it is ready to migrate, making the same journey alone, guided by a genetically-determined map and navigational tools, it will look very similar to its parents.

During the heat of the day there is no sound or motion, perhaps like me, the Nightingales are taking a siesta. The evening brings this bird out of the shade. I watch it hopping close to me, peering at the ground and base of the walls until twenty minutes after sunset, it then hops back into the shade, barely visible in the dusk light, melting back into a shadow.


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