Nightingales in Southwest France

 

I know this isn't a nightingale but you try getting a photo of one...

I know this isn’t a nightingale but you try taking a photo of one…

I heard the first nightingale of the year on Wednesday. Other people say they have been around for a couple of weeks but they seem to arrive later and later chez nous in recent years. The unmistakable sliding, virtuoso sound emerging from the thicket on the other side of the wall heralded the arrival of yet another summer visitor.

Thou … singest of summer in full-throated ease (Keats)

I heard a nightingale for the first (and only time) in England in a small square in Oxford one summer evening. The bird was perched in a tree growing in the centre of the square. A group of people had gravitated to the sound and stood transfixed beneath the tree. The nightingale, oblivious to its audience, continued its throaty song. With regret, my companion and I had to leave after a few minutes.

I had to wait 20 years to hear the next one. We were in France, staying in a gîte by the River Aveyron while house hunting. In fact, tomorrow it will be17 years since we saw our house for the first time. We sat outside then, enjoying the dusk and watching the bright comet that was just a smudge in the London sky. The still air carried the liquid melody of the nightingales and it was all rather idyllic.

Here’s a rather good clip of a nightingale singing from YouTube.

Variable arrival date

Since then, the SF (statistics freak aka my husband), who records anything and everything, has recorded the nightingale’s annual arrival date since 2000. The earliest was 6th April in 2005 and 2011; the latest was 24th April in 2000. This year’s (23rd April) is definitely on the late side. Most often, it has arrived in mid-April, between 13th and 18th. The past few years, it has arrived at the latter end but there’s no discernible pattern apart from that.

We have noticed, though, that nightingales have been less numerous around us in recent years. We hope that this is not due to pesticide use and thus lack of food. This area is notable for cattle farming, not arable, but who knows how these things might work?

Modest diva

Mostly, you only hear nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos or Common Nightingale). Sometimes we see one flitting about before settling in a thorn bush and tuning up. They are unexceptional birds to look at – a bit like a fly catcher and about the same colour – but their song more than makes up for their lack of colour. The RSPB says the most similar birds are redstarts and robins. I have been unable to get close enough to photograph a nightingale.

Nightingales are migratory, over-wintering in West Africa and spending the summer in Europe and parts of Asia. They appear in mid-south Sweden but must be at the very extremity of their range there. They normally nest in thickets, lay five eggs in late May and leave in late summer/early autumn.

Nightingale is ‘rossignol’ in French, which I think is a lovely name. You sometimes see lieux-dits called Rossignol, perhaps because they were the birds’ favourite haunts. Or maybe they were named after people who lived there, since Rossignol is also a surname – as is Nightingale in English.

The bird has also provided the inspiration for music and for numerous songs and poems, including Keats’ Ode quoted above.

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About Vanessa Couchman

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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12 Responses to Nightingales in Southwest France

  1. Pingback: Hoopoes and SW France Weather April 2014  | Life on La Lune

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks Vanessa. This was really uplifting. I have never heard the nightingale’s song before and found your article fascinating. Housebound today with a kidney infection, it was a lovely reminder of the joys of Nature, rather than afternoon t v…(I must feel bad!)

    • nessafrance says:

      So sorry to hear about your kidney infection and hope you will soon be over it. The YouTube clip is a good one and they do sound like that. However, I think there are birds that have a more melodious song, like blackbirds. But nightingales are more virtuoso. Amazing what such a small and insignificant-looking bird can produce!

      • Chris says:

        Absolutely! Hope to be singing myself too soon. Not sure I can emulate either bird though!

  3. Osyth says:

    How funny … I heard my first and only Nightingale in Oxford too when I was a student there and the song was entrancing enough to cut through my youthful introversion and take me to quite another place. Amazingly, I heard my first in France 10 days ago – my cousin staying with me, stopped suddenly and pointed out the song soaring in the clear air – so, so beautiful :)

    • nessafrance says:

      Strange that we both heard one in Oxford. I wonder if they still sing there. They obviously arrived earlier chez vous than with us this year.

  4. You have got me going now first listening to birds on Youtube and now sitting here on a rather chilly day trying to identify the birds in my garden! :-)

    • nessafrance says:

      I’ve added a YouTube clip of a nightingale singing. They have a very distinctive song and this clip is quite good, I think. Hope you have some in your garden!

  5. Our nightingale started up in early April. If ever I get up in the night, I go downstairs and open the door to listen for a few minutes. It’s magical.

    • nessafrance says:

      Yours was earlier than ours, then. I agree, it is such a magical sound. I will try to find a good clip that I can put in the post. I would really love people who have never heard one to know how it sounds.

  6. amelie88 says:

    Out of curiosity I looked up the nightingale call on Youtube. I swear I heard that exact same twitter yesterday when I got home (though apparently they are not native to the Americas), there was a bird flying around but I didn’t get a good look at it. Will have to investigate further!

    As an aside, Rossignol is actually a ski brand here too in the US (though I think it originated in France). I’ve rented them many times to go skiing.

    • nessafrance says:

      I had also read that nightingales are not indigenous to the Americas. But thank you for reminding me – I meant to include a YouTube clip to a nightingale’s song. It’s so special that anyone who has not heard it before will be enthralled. Will do that when I have a moment(!).

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