Travels of a Nightingale

First published April 2018

I know I have written about migration before, but it is something that is just so fascinating that I’m not going to apologise for re-visiting the subject again, especially as having just come back from a trip to Morocco, with some of my Henfield Birdwatch colleagues, and experienced migration at first hand.

While on the edge of the desert we were in the gardens of one of the hotels we were staying at and amongst the vegetation a small bird was moving around the base of the trees and shrubs that was very hard to see, but eventually showed itself to be a nightingale. For us ‘Henfieldites’, this was rather poignant as we are very much associated with the nightingale population within our parish. Now, we had no way of knowing whether this little bird was going to end up around Henfield, but the romantic souls that we are, hoped that it might do!

But, seeing this bird just reminded us that what an extremely difficult and hazardous journey millions of birds take to get to their northern hemisphere breeding grounds, having spent the summer on the African continent. Over the last 10 years, fitting a tiny satellite tag to nightingales has enabled researchers and conservationists to find out where our nightingales spend the winter and what routes they take both on their spring and autumn migrations. We now know that nightingales spend the winter months in West Africa, mainly in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau and it is only a relatively short time that they are there. Most of the year they are actually on the move.

One of the first nightingales that was fitted with one of geo-satellites while at their nest site in East Anglia on the 12th May 2010 and then, following breeding, it left the site on the 25th July, crossing the channel a week later. The satellite transmits regular signals on a regular basis so that the birds’ journey was tracked down to its’ wintering grounds at which it didn’t arrive at until mid-December, so the journey took nearly 5 months. It then left its wintering grounds in Senegal on the return journey early February and arrived back within 50 metres of where it was originally tagged in early May the following year. This tiny bird, about the size of a robin, travelled about 6000 miles, spending over 9 months moving between its wintering and breeding grounds. That journey took it through various habitats, desert, crossing seas, barren farmland as well as sudden inclement weather, facing dangers as predators and even hunters, a truly remarkable achievement.

Other species we came across in Morocco that were making their way northwards that mat end up in our parish included many swallows, which may well have started their journeys right down in South Africa. A few house martins passed overhead as well as swifts and a couple of wheatears.

Seeing some of these familiar birds in unusual habitats and situations is actually quite humbling. We just got an aircraft and in about 4 hours we were in Morocco, whereas for these birds their journey is full of danger and a big number of them never actually make it.

Mike Russell