Lloyds Coppice rises up from the Jackfield stretch of the River Severn. A tangle of Birch, Elm, Oak and Alder clinging to the steep side of the Ironbridge Gorge.
As I walk through the trees, a Comma Butterfly basks on the sunny path and a pair of Orange Tips fly by. I enter a beautiful glade where barren strawberry, ground ivy and clumps of heather are growing. Two Peacock Butterflies spiral upwards, flying together in their delicate mating dance. The male butterfly suddenly breaks off to chase an Orange Underwing Moth away from his territory.
A Bee-Fly nectars on Lesser Celandine, hovering with its long snout.
On this sunny day I am here to experience the manylayered soundscape of Spring birdsong. At the edge of the glade in a flowering ash tree, a Chiffchaff is singing. He is proudly calling for a mate, repeating his name over and over again. This makes the Chiffchaff one of the easiest birdsongs to recognise. The bird looks very similar to other Warblers (such as the Willow Warbler). The song is a useful diagnostic feature. Further along the woodland path, a Wren sings from deep within a bramble thicket. This tiny bird makes a big noise, his whole body twitching with the effort. Meanwhile, the repetitive Song Thrush calls out from the top of an oak tree and a Great Tit calls ‘teacher teacher’.
I leave the beaten track and push my way through the dense undergrowth. Amongst the Hazel and Sycamore, Harts Tongue Fern tumbles down the rocky slopes and the smell of Wild Garlic fills my nostrils.
The terrain steepens, and I clutch branches to pull myself to the top of the gorge. I emerge from this untamed environment to see a housing estate, all mown lawns and neatly clipped conifer hedges. The steep valley sides have been a natural barrier to stop further urban sprawl. Looking through the trees to the valley below, I can see the four cooling towers of Buildwas power station.
There is a reason that I have chosen this particular piece of woodland in which to listen to birdsong. It excites me to think that this was the last official Shropshire sighting of the most famous songbird of all. This bird has inspired poets and writers such as John Keats and William Wordsworth to wax lyrical about his magical song.
The bird is, of course, the Nightingale and has not been seen in our county since the 1970’s. They require dense scrub in which to nest. This is not always a popular habitat as it can look messy and requires management to prevent it progressing to woodland. Lloyds Coppice has, twice in its history, been completely felled to fuel industry. This would have allowed dense scrubby patches and heathland to develop.
Nightingales are famous for singing at night. However, they are not the only birds to do this. It is most likely that the song lyric, ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’ was actually inspired by the sound of a Robin.
They often sing at night in cities, prompted by the street lights (creating a false dawn). Shutting my eyes, I hear the wonderful song of a Robin coming from the top of a small beech tree next to the path. Melodious, warbling and yet at times scratchy, one can see why this could be mistaken for a Nightingale.
Robins are not the only birds that compete with the nightingale for a beautiful song. I enter a meadow surrounded by honeysuckle-entwined bramble and last year’s dead Umbellifer stems. A fl uting and rapid song comes from a fresh green Hawthorn tree. I recognise it to be a Blackcap. This little warbler is sometimes known as the ‘Northern Nightingale’.
Songbirds are also in full voice in the fi elds and farmland of Shropshire. This month, near Morville, I watched a Skylark ascending from a fi eld of Oilseed rape. The beautiful and complex song echoed out across the land. Meanwhile a Yellowhammer was singing in the hedgerow behind me, ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’.
However, woodlands seem to amplify birdsong. May is the month to set your alarm clock and head to the woods to experience the crescendo of birdsong that is the dawn chorus. With a carpet of Bluebells underfoot and the fl uting sound of a Blackbird singing in the half-light, it really is one of the wonders of the natural world. And if you are anywhere near Lloyds Coppice, maybe just maybe…
Do one thing for wildlife this month:
May is peak nesting period for our native birds. Please remember that it is illegal to disturb nesting birds so at this time of year avoid trimming hedges and cutting down trees. One way that you can help the birds is by leaving suitable material around the garden for them to line their nests with. This can be moss raked from the lawn, animal fur or even fluff from the vacuum cleaner!
In terms of feeding the birds, avoid peanuts as young chicks can choke on them. It is better to supplement the bird’s diet at this time of year with some live mealworms. These are available from pet shops and are a great source of protein for young birds.