13th May 2021

This year's Mental Health Awareness Week campaign is connecting with nature, so what better time for Harriet Smith to join the RSPB for a guided nightingale walk on a quest to hear some of Medway's treasured feathered visitors. 

Today I heard a nightingale sing.


Rushing home from work through the traffic and swinging by home to collect the tweenager, I couldn’t wait to meet my date for the evening, David - volunteer RSPB warden for Cliffe Pools and Northward Hill Reserves.


I met David at Northward Hill Reserve where he had promised to find us a nightingale sing and with it being Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme connecting with nature, it seemed like the perfect offering.


We were first guided through the pathways - carefully watching our step for the badger potholes - which suddenly opened to a vast area of frolicking wild rabbits.  These bunnies were clearly not happy to be caught and soon dashed for cover.  My daughter let out a little giggle at the sight of their cotton tail bottoms frantically diving in the hedgerows.  For me, I was taken back to a traumatic childhood experience of Watership Down.  


We stopped and took in the sounds, a cuckoo was being extremely vocal but still no nightingale.


Moving on to Sweeney view point - which was officially named after Oliver Sweeney a RSPB Volunteer and nightingale champion - where although the vista is breathtaking, still no nightingales.


As we stood chatting about the flora and fauna of this area, David stopped mid sentence, he’d heard one!


His finely-tuned ear led us closer to the nightingale and yes it is true what they say, this birdsong is unique and special.  Apparently nightingales can produce an array of over 1000 sounds and the bubbling song we heard certainly was very distinctive. 

But as we got greedy for the sound we moved closer and as with many things of nature, he (yes it’s only the males who sing) was shy and clearly didn’t want to be serenading us any longer. A shame but I still felt elated by my small masterpiece of sound.


Leading us back to the car David explained that the nightingales would soon be taking their epic voyage back to Africa. Usually by this time of year the RSPB rangers have gathered many visitors for their annual nightingale walks but due to Covid restrictions this hadn’t been possible.  They do have two walks organised for next week when the restrictions are relaxed, booking can be made by emailing [email protected] 


The tweenager had been very quiet during the walk and although I did catch her breaking out into a Tik-Tok dance at the top of Sweeney View Point, she hadn’t looked at her phone.  So I asked what she had thought of our visit and she replied "I dunno, the sounds were really calming", which take it from me, is the equivalent to a rave review on Tripadvisor!

RSPB Volunteer David Saunders shares his knowledge about the rich wildlife that makes the Hoo Peninsula its home. 

Here on the Hoo Peninsula we are blessed with not one, but two nationally and internationally-important RSPB reserves. 

Both are managed all year round by a warden and two assistant wardens and a site manager, supported by interns and an army of volunteers. So what can we see?

In the spring though to summer it’s all about visiting warblers, cuckoos and nightingales. 

Many areas on the Peninsula are designated by Natural England as Sites of Special Scientific Interest as they are very important for fauna and flora, and the area is famous for having the largest population of nightingales in Great Britain.

Northward Hill has many singing males, belting out from the scrub early April to the end of May, 31 at this year's count. So if you add this nightingale population to the 10 at Cliffe and the 80 or so at Lodge Hill, plus smaller numbers dotted around the Peninsula, there could easily be between 170 plus singing nightingale territories on The Peninsula. 

There are of course sedge, reed and cetti’s warblers all day every day, whitethroat and lesser whitethroat are easily found in the scrub walking up to Sweeney Viewpoint, from where the vista is breath-taking across the marsh to the River Thames and beyond into Essex.

Dominating this part of the reserve is the Cooling Radio Station. Built in the 1930s during the early days of radio it allowed Churchill to talk to his American counterparts in World War II through a complex scrambling system. Across this view herons can be seen flying back and forth with their cousins little egrets.

Staying in the spring/summer months the iconic cuckoo males make their way back and forth and with patience are easy to spot and if you are lucky the once heard never forgotten bubbling call of the female.

Owls are another feature of Northward Hill in particular, with tawny, barn and little owls breeding regularly.

Great Chattenden Wood was a famous butterfly hotspot for Victorian collectors, even today purple emperor, white admiral and the beautiful silver-washed fritillary are easily found at the right time of year - in fact 20 species of butterfly are regularly found here, along with dragonflies, damselflies and hoverflies.

Birds at Cliffe and Northward Hill are swollen by huge numbers of water species over-wintering, Huge numbers of lapwing over both sites, estimated at 10,000, pochard, tufted duck, wigeon, avocet, grebe, light, great-crested and black-necked, goldeneye, mute swans and coot. Great clouds of dunlin swirl overhead depending on the tide on the Thames onto the reserve and back again to feed off the exposed mud flats.

There are also many amazing raptors (birds of prey). Common buzzard, peregrine falcon, kestrel, sparrowhawk, and marsh harrier, plus merlin and hen harrier as winter visitors.