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Where have Shropshire's nightingales gone?

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The song of the nightingale used to be heard regularly in the Shropshire countryside - but they've flown the nest. Toby Neal looks at why they vanished, and where they have gone.

The nightingaleAs spring turns to summer in the Shropshire countryside, keep your ears open for the sweet song of a nightingale.

It will almost certainly be a total waste of time, but it will keep you out of mischief and give you something to do in the evenings.

The sad fact is that nightingales packed their bags and departed from Shropshire around 30 years ago. They clung on in the Ironbridge Gorge, where once there had been a little colony. But by the late 1970s they were down to just a pair or two around The Lloyds, Jackfield. And then one year the birds, which are migratory, simply didn't come back, and that was that.

Shropshire was at the extreme north-west of their range, and their disappearance was part of a general retreat by nightingales towards the south-east of England, which is the only place that has them now.

They were never very common in Shropshire, and when a pair nested in a churchyard opposite The Rookery in Madeley in 1973, it was described as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the residents who heard them singing from dawn to dusk.

The Ludlow area was another of the places in Shropshire where you might have been lucky enough to hear a nightingale.

"It's a sad story really," said birdwatcher John Turner, former secretary of the Shropshire Ornithological Society.

The Ironbridge Gorge was once home to nightingales"Nightingales as a species have declined throughout the country. I know from past records that the last confirmed sightings of Shropshire nightingales were in the 1970s, the Ironbridge Gorge was the favourite area. They seemed to like that sort of area, with a river and woodland.

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"Since then there have been isolated reports, but no confirmed reports of them breeding in Shropshire."

Reasons for the decline could be disturbance, development, loss of habitat and modern farming practices.

It has been a great loss to Shropshire.

"If you hear a nightingale singing you will be transfixed, carried away. It's the most beautiful bird song you will hear in this country," said John.

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Incidentally nightingales only sing between April and early June, and despite their name do not only sing at night. And although nightingales are most associated with nocturnal singing, some other birds, particularly robins, do occasionally sing at night too, and get paid the compliment of being mistaken for nightingales.

This night-time singing by urban birds may be triggered by floodlights or bright street lighting. Another theory researchers have come up with is that they do so because the din of modern towns and cities drowns them out during the day.

By Toby Neal

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