Thursday, 28 April 2016

York Heathland

On Friday and Wednesday we went to 2 different lowland heath areas in the York area.  Some of the bird species encountered were rather similar, so they are all placed together here.  The only interloper is Maggie's Treecreeper with insect in bill which was taken on Tuesday at a higher altitude at what felt like the depths of winter!
Woodlark (c) 2016 Aileen Urquhart
 Yellowhammer (c) 2016 Aileen Urquhart
 Yellowhammer (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
 Whitethroat (c) 2016 Aileen Urquhart
 Whitethroat (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
 Whitethroat (c) 2016 Mike Woods
 Willow Warbler (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
 Willow Warbler (c) 2016 Aileen Urquhart
 Willow Warbler (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
 Great Spotted Woodpecker (c) 2016 Mike Woods
 Treecreeper & insect in bill (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Treecreeper (c) 2016 Mike Woods
 Cuckoo Flower/Lady's Smock? (c) 2016 Mike Woods

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Tolkien’s Tinúviel: the Nightingale in Tolkien’s Writings

All Nightingale Photos (c) 2016 Michael Flowers
This one taken in Lincolnshire in 2009

In late April Nightingales are still returning to southern Britain, so this seems an appropriate time to recall Tolkien’s treatment of this exquisite songster.  Tolkien refers to nightingales (mainly in passing) in a surprisingly high number of his works, but I’m not going to refer to them all here.  Instead, I list all the titles of his books in which I’ve been able to locate an allusion to this species in the almost obligatory appendix. 

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) 16½ cm (6½ ins) 
Quenya: lómelindё (dusk-singer); Sindarin: tinúviel (daughter of twilight) 

The Natural History of the Nightingale 
As Tolkien never provides a physical description of nightingales and only once attempts anything more than a brief evocation of listening to the effects of its song, what follow is a brief summary of the bird and its repertoire.  A nightingale is a small brown songbird of the thrush family, or to be slightly more accurate, a chat, which is a particular sub-family of the thrushes.  It is roughly intermediate in size between a robin and a song thrush.  It is an unobtrusive bird and spends most of its time hidden in deep cover, which is why it has a large dark eye to enable it to locate its food of worms, beetles and other insects in semi-darkness.  It will often raise its rufous-coloured tail while it forages on the ground where it can resemble the outline of a very large Wren. 
Nightingale collecting insects for nestlings

A nightingale’s physical appearance is understandably much less renowned than its stunningly-complex and amazingly-loud song. Although nightingales sing in the daylight as much as at night, the song becomes much more obvious in the dark when most other birds, apart from the much less musical owls, have become silent.  It is believed that male nightingales arrive first and select some suitable habitat, and sing day and night to attract a migrating female out of the sky down to their territory.  Perhaps it is appropriate here to state that all singing nightingales are male birds, although many poets used to assume that they were female.  Scientists believe a male with a more complex song will attract a female more quickly, as his song is a way of illustrating that he is likely to be the most productive bird, and is therefore believed to be carrying the most successful genes to be passed on to the next generation.  It is very hard to do justice to the remarkable qualities of its song in words, but this is Richard Mabey’s attempt: 
“there is a flourish of piping notes to begin with, sometimes in triplets or short arpeggios, and
often with an urgent, whiplash quality; then a single note repeated as a rich, liquid
bubbling or chuckling or slow trill…the bird’s signature tune…is a sequence of long,
sighing, indrawn whistles, mounting in a crescendo on a single note until they fall,
dramatically to a deep rattle.” 
In addition to Mabey’s comments it is worth adding that the nightingale’s habit of giving a fairly lengthy pause between each ‘aria’ raises similarities between the bird and opera singers. 

The nightingale’s song is justifiably famous, but each year it is only heard for a relatively short period.  The first males start to arrive about mid-April and sing both night and day for hours at a time, but once a male has paired up he will sing for shorter periods, and by the end of May there will be relatively few nightingales singing, and by the beginning of July none at all.  You may hear a nightingale singing at the RSPB website here
Male nightingale at full throttle

The Poetic Heritage 
The nightingale’s song has been the subject of poetic English literature for well over one thousand, three hundred years.  One of the earliest surviving poems about the bird is an Old English riddle by William of Malmesbury believed to have been written around 650 AD.  Tolkien lectured on the early Middle English Poem The Owl and the Nightingale, and even worked on a translation of it, which he probably left unfinished.  In early literature the nightingale tended to be seen as “cheerful, engaging birds, the friends and confidants of lovers”, but the situation changed in Renaissance times when the bird became associated with more illicit “sexual frolicking”(Mabey p.12).  Other more recent noteworthy contributions to the literary tradition have been provided by John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Clare.  Only the latter has ornithological as well as poetic value.  To generalise, the Romantic poets reclaimed the nightingale’s song as a thing of joy (Cocker, p.342).  In the twentieth century T.S. Eliot’s influential interpretation in The Waste Land of the bird was associated with the “fragmented, loveless character of modern sexual relations” (Cocker, Ibid.).  It is unsurprising that Tolkien’s use of the nightingale has more kinship with the early literature and the Romantic poets than with Eliot.  An excellent survey of the literature and folk-lore, and descriptions of personal encounters with the nightingale, may be found in Richard Mabey’s Whistling in the Dark (1993), and in The Barley-Bird: Notes on the Suffolk Nightingale (2010).  Mabey’s thoughts on the species are distilled in the entry for the bird in Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica (2005).  This small, apparently insignificant bird, over the past millennia, has accreted a disproportionate amount of cultural baggage, but how has Tolkien engaged with the species? 
Possibly a female Nightingale collecting nesting material

Tolkien’s Inspiration 
Ever since the publication of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography in 1977 it has become well-known among Tolkien readers that Tolkien was inspired to write the tale of Beren and Lúthien after his wife danced and sang for him in a glade with ‘hemlocks’ (cow parsley) near Roos, East Yorkshire during World War One.  The importance of this event in Tolkien’s literary imagination cannot be over-estimated.  He continued to write variations of their encounter for many decades; as Dimitra Fimi has summarised it “was first written in 1917 and exists in at least another eight versions, the latest written in the 1950s” (p.2).  Of all the characters he invented, it is the names Lúthien and Beren which appear on his and his wife’s gravestone.  Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Edith Tolkien’s dance was accompanied by nightingales in Roos.   There are no Nightingales in the Roos area now, nor have there been for many decades.  However, it is just possible they may have been present one hundred years ago, so this is an area that warrants more research.  Occasionally, a member of the warbler family, the blackcap, is called the northern nightingale, so it may have been this species which sang in Roos, or just as plausibly a song thrush or even a blackbird.  Perhaps the bird song was completely imaginary, as the most common sounds in Dents Garth on an early summer evening now are from the extremely noisy rookery.  The nightingale has not  bred above the Humber in large numbers in recent decades, but there are ancient reports of them breeding as far north as Boroughbridge. Although occasional individual males still overshoot their territories and are heard singing for a few hours or even days in Yorkshire, the bird is declining locally.  Even the apparently healthy 1990s colony of a dozen singing males on Thorne Moors near Doncaster became extinct within the last decade.  One of the factors is believed to be the burgeoning population of several species of deer, including some which have been introduced.  These deer are heavily grazing the thick undergrowth needed by the species.  The nightingale population in Arda is more secure, as the many wolves keep the numbers of deer in check! 
Nightingale - note white eye-ring surrounding large dark eye

The Nightingale in Tolkien’s Writings 
Many readers’ first encounter with the nickname Tinúviel probably occurs when Aragorn relates Beren and Lύthien’s basic story initially in a poem, followed by a prose explanation to the Hobbits shortly before the attack of the Nazgûl on Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings (1954-5). However, Tolkien had been utilizing the word Tinúviel for decades in his unpublished writings.

In Tolkien’s work the nightingale is most closely associated with Lύthien, the daughter of Melian, the Maia, and Thingol. In The Silmarillion when Beren first sees Lύthien he names her Tinúviel, which is nightingale in the language of the Grey-elves. Later, when Beren hears her singing it is described as keen and heart-piercing. “Heart-piercing” were the same words used by the romantic poet and actress Mary Robinson (c.1757-1800) in her ode to the bird, but they are not specific enough to suggest Tolkien may have read and remembered her poetry. However, there is no doubt that “keen” and “heart-piercing” are much more appropriate epithets to describe the song of the nightingale than that of the lark, which Tolkien likens her song to at this point of the narrative (p.165).  

Rather interestingly, in the earliest-surviving version of the ‘Tale of Tinúviel’ the name of Lúthien does not even appear, and Tinúviel is her given name. In the emerging mythology Lúthien was originally the name the elves of Tol Eressёa gave to a male character – Ælfwine. So, the nickname Tinúviel, the word for nightingale, predates the invention of the name Lúthien by several years. 

In the Silmarillion Lúthien arrives at Tol-in-Gaurhoth where Beren lies imprisoned and demoralised by Sauron.  When she sings he imagines the stars shining above his head and nightingales singing in the trees.  This gives him the brief strength to sing “a song of challenge that he had made in praise of the Seven Stars”, which are a sign of the fall of Morgoth.  Beren collapses after the effort of singing, but his song revealed his presence, and in turn leads Lúthien to sing a song of greater power, which causes Sauron to send out a series of wolves, which are each defeated by Huan, until Sauron cloaks himself in the form of a werewolf, and after an epic struggle he is forced to abandon his stronghold to Lúthien, who is then able to rescue Beren.  In this example the nightingales are linked with a dream-world, but one which permits the ‘dreamer’ to accomplish a final act of defiance, which eventually leads to his subsequent liberation. 

Although the connection between Lúthien and nightingales is the most obvious example, her mother, Melian, is also strongly linked to this species.  In The Silmarillion Melian originally lives in Lórien in Valinor where she is said to have taught nightingales their song, so that they “sang about her wherever she went” (p.30).  Melian left Valinor when the Quendi woke and she brought her nightingales with her and “she filled the silence of Middle-earth before the dawn with her voice and the voices of her birds” (p.55).  Later, King Elwë (Thingol) was passing Nan Elmoth when he hears nightingales.  His search for the birds leads him directly to Melian where he falls under an enchantment.  Tolkien therefore uses nightingales here both to increase the romantic aspects of the narrative, but also as a direct means – it doesn’t feel quite appropriate to use the phrase “plot device” – of bringing Thingol to Melian, and in due course the birth of Lúthien.  On this occasion nightingales could also be argued to be an unwitting partial agent of eventual disaster.  Once Thingol falls under Melian’s spell he is described as “lost” and “he forgot then utterly all his people” (Ibid.).  Therefore, from the point of view of the Teleri, it could be argued that Thingol’s role as leader of his people has been fatally undermined because he heeded the songsters.  If he had continued to lead his people then it is possible that the future disastrous consequences of the kinslaying would never have taken place, nor ultimately the sacking of Doriath. 
A Nightingale at its most drab

The earliest surviving reference to nightingales in Tolkien’s posthumously published writings is in the apparently unsophisticated poem ‘You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play’ (April 1915), which merely includes the brief name-check: “while all about the nightingales/were singing in the trees” (BOLT1, p.28).  The quote above survived intact into the latest version of the poem which may have been worked on as late as 1962.  In this situation Tolkien seems to have merely utilised the nightingale to enhance the romantic atmosphere of the couple in the poem.  John Garth has argued convincingly that the boy and girl in the poem are representations of Tolkien and Edith as children, so this is another earlier-written instance of Edith and Ronald being associated with these typical birds of romantic love (Garth, p.72). 

Later, in the link between The Cottage of Lost Play and The Music of the Ainur, just before going to sleep, Eriol (who later became Ælfwine) hears the sudden song of a nightingale through the open window.  The song seems to bleed into his dreams because he heard a music in the dream: “thinner and more pure than any he heard before, and it was full of longing” (Ibid, p.46).  There then follows Tolkien’s most evocative description of the images conveyed by the nightingale’s song: 
“it was if pipes of silver or flutes of shape most slender-delicate uttered crystal notes and 
threadlike harmonies beneath the moon upon the lawns.” (Ibid.) 
In this preliminary introduction to the cosmology the nightingales could be argued to act as a bridge between Eriol’s world of mankind, and the first description of the much earlier Music of the Ainur, although this conception was subsequently dropped. 

An occurrence in Tolkien’s own childhood predates the use of the species in his fiction. Tolkien’s young cousins, Marjorie and Mary Incledon, invented a language which they called ‘Animalic’, in which “nightingale” was seemingly chosen rather arbitrarily as an equivalent to the English word “are” (A Secret Vice, p.9 and note 18).  So far, so seemingly trivial, but is it coincidental that one of the first words one of Tolkien’s characters learns on encountering another language seems to echo Tolkien’s childhood experience?  In the surviving text of The Lost Road Alboin has a series of dreams from which he awakes and remembers fragments of a new language.  One of the earliest words he learns is lömelindё, which he realises means nightingale (p.41).  Alboin is a budding philologist, and there are a number of similarities between his character and that of Tolkien.  Whether Tolkien deliberately linked his own youthful experience of the nightingale in the very primitive childish new language of his cousins, with that of his character encountering a far more advanced well-considered imaginary language seems possible, but probably cannot be established with any certainty. 
Nightingale - note the tongue, which used to be a continental delicacy!

Later, in The Lost Road Elendil and his son are discussing the consequences of Sauron’s arrival on Númenor, when a nightingale (lómelindё) suddenly bursts into song. The adjective Tolkien selects to describe the song is “thrilling”, which although completely appropriate is not a typical response, unless one has actually had a personal experience of the bird suddenly rending the darkness of the evening with its heart-stopping song.  The nightingale’s song is then joined by the voice of the maiden Fíriel, singing from a high position, which seems to silence the bird.  While the nightingale was described as “thrilling”, the word which appears twice in association with Fíriel’s is “sadly” (pp.2-3).  It seems likely that Fíriel was going to reappear in the narrative, but the significance of her role and any comparison with the nightingale remain conjectural as the fragment of The Lost Road ends before she makes a reappearance.  In the surviving rudimentary notes provided by Christopher Tolkien, there is no further mention of her role, so it is possible Fíriel was merely added as a melancholy counterpoint to the thrilling nightingale in a fragment which already includes many hints of approaching calamity. 

From the single reference in The Lord of the Rings it would appear that Tolkien merely uses the nightingale to enhance the romantic credentials of the story being related, but when some of the posthumously published references are considered a more complex picture emerges.  Yes, Tolkien often highlights the virtuosity of its song, but its use in other texts implies a greater significance.  In The Lost Road the use of nightingale is a means of beginning to assemble the building-blocks of an unfamiliar (imaginary) language, which can be seen to have a vague autobiographical link to the author’s own early unsteady attempts at understanding an imaginary language.  Of course as several of the narratives in which nightingales appeared remained unfinished, it isn’t always possible to judge if Tolkien had a more nuanced role in mind for this species.  The cumulative effect of the nightingale being mentioned in such a great number of texts makes one wonder if the species had a totemic importance for Tolkien.  The implications of the word nightingale in each text taken together resonates in the mind of this reader out of all proportion to the amount of text allocated to this truly iconic songster.  This spring why not try to have an aural encounter with this enigmatic, magical species before it is lost as a British breeding bird, and muse on and remember the scenes in Tolkien’s writings in which the song is mentioned? 
Nightingale - An Overshooting Migrant at Spurn 2009


Tolkien Texts in which Nightingales are mentioned 
The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, London: Harper Collins, 2004.
The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
The Monsters and the Critics & Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: 1982.
Roverandom, edited by Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull, London: HarperCollins, 1998.
A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, edited by Dimitra Fimi & Andrew Higgins, HarperCollins, 2016.

The History of Middle-earth 
The Book of Lost Tales: Part 1, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.
The Book of Lost Tales: Part 2, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984
The Lays of Beleriand, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985.
The Shaping of Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986
The Lost Road, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: Unwin Hyman, 1987.
Sauron Defeated, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: HarperCollins, 1992.
Morgoth’s Ring, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: HarperCollins, 1993.
The War of the Jewels, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: Harper Collins, 1994.

Other Works Consulted 
Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.
Dimitra Fimi, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, London: HarperCollins, 2003.
Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: A Reader’s Guide, London: HarperCollins, 2006.
Phil Mathison, Tolkien in East Yorkshire: Newport: Dead Good, 2012.

Nightingale Sources
Mabey, Richard. Whistling in the Dark: in Pursuit of the Nightingale, London: Vintage, 1993.
Cocker, Mark & Richard Mabey (eds.), Birds Britannica, London: Chatto & Windus, 2005.
Chas A. Holt, Chris M. Hewson & Robert J. Fuller, “The Nightingale in Britain: Status, Ecology & Conservation needs” in British Birds, Vol. 105, pp.172-187, 2012.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Second Half of Last Week

On Thursday and Friday we travelled to a site near York. We should have been there next Friday, but the stinking Tour de Yorkshire was going right through the nearest village at lunch time, so the am group wouldn't be able to escape home for hours, and the pm group wouldn't be able to get here.
Willow Warbler
On Friday morning I opened the car door to hear a distant Cuckoo - probably the earliest for several years.  Later we saw it fly over a heath, and then over everyone's head as we were almost back at the car park
Record shot of a Cuckoo
On Thursday we took the path left through the old airfield. The best bird here was a displaying Willow Warbler. There wasn't as much life as the previous week. However, in the afternoon when we came against to the barren "crop of lawn" we timed things just right to coincide with a small herd of Fallow Deer which were just emerging from the distant conifers. Some record shots are given below. A Red-legged Partridge was much closer on the lawn in the morning.
 Fallow Deer
There was no sign of the exquisite songsters on the first major heath this week, or of the laughing waffle - although both these species were located on the Friday.  However, after lunch we saw one of the strange bee flies, and a plethora of beautifully bejewelled Tiger Beetles.   They failed to show on the Friday - it was just too cloudy!
Tiger Beetle
 Tiger Beetles just launching
 Tree Pipit - archive photo
The walk around the old brick section was quite uneventful, but we did see and hear the marvellous song flight of a displaying Tree Pipit, and both sessions enjoyed views of a Grass Snake. In the afternoon I actually had my camera with me, so was able to snatch a photo.  The pipit was singing from a slightly different area on Friday, but there was no Grass Snake, because of the lack of sun. 
Grass Snake
Record Shot of Green Woodpecker
 Male Kestrel
On the return journey we had an amazing close view of a Treecreeper, although a Great Spotted Woodpecker, played much harder to get. The same area contained at least 2 Jays early doors, and the morning group saw a Blackcap carrying nesting material.
Other birds: Chiffchaff, Buzzards, Kestrel etc
 Willow Warbler
 Mistle Thrush
Possibly Orange Jelly Lycogala terrestre  (c) 2016 Jane Robinson
The strange Orange Jelly found by some of the group has been tentatively identified by John Nicholson as Dacrymyces stillatus.  Barry Warrington has got back to me with the correct identification:  Lycogala terrestre. Barry reports: Your specimen is in its early stages, as it gets older, it darkens to a mucky greyish colour.  Thanks, Barry.

Friday, 22 April 2016

First Part of the Week

On Tuesday we went wading at the previous Friday's location again. We saw most of the same birds, but with the addition of 2 Common Whitethroats. However, although the weather was better, the Nuthatch, Willow Tit and Lesser Redpolls, and Crossbills were all missing. We got very close to Yellowhammers, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs. A party of Jays were feeding at the western edge of the YWT Reserve. Despite the wonderful sunshine, we failed to see a single Adder.
Bearded Tit (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
Yellowhammer (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Willow Warbler (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Yellowhammer (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Linnet (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Jay (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Whitethroat (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Buzzards (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Crow mobbing a Buzzard (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
 Peacock (c) 2016 Maggie Bruce
On Wednesday we travelled over the Humber Bridge to Old Far Ings. In the brilliant sunshine there was a Reed Warbler singing on the way to the main hide. From the hide itself we enjoyed great views of 2 male Bearded Tits. Several Cetti's Warblers could be heard singing around the reserve, there were probably at least 4 birds present, but possibly more. 
Bearded Tit (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
 Bearded Tit
 Bearded Tit
 Bearded Tit
On the way round the reserve some of us could just make out some faint reeling of at least 2 Grasshopper Warblers.
In the blackthorn blossom a female Blackcap posed in the open for a couple of minutes, allowing everyone to see her. From the riverbank we heard an explosion of sound, indicating another Cetti's Warbler, but the only visible birds were Dunnocks! It was low tide, and there was no sign of last week's porpoise. We did hear the 2nd Grasshopper Warbler here, but also our first Sedge Warbler. 
Female Blackcap
Back in the reserve there was the mournful call of Bullfinches, but they couldn't be located. From the reedy hide we could see a dark shape in the kestrel box, which in the afternoon David's scope revealed was a female Tawny Owl hunkered down on her nest.
On the perimeter walk near the hotel we had a Lesser Whitethroat, which in the afternoon gave prolonged views. 
 Lesser Whitethroat
From the hide there wasn't a great deal to be seen, but in the afternoon a male Marsh Harrier drifted across the reeds, which flushed a Snipe which flew away in a westerly direction.
Treecreeper (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
 Treecreeper (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
We had time to cross the road and have a look into the new ponds. Most of the Ducks had left, apart from a few scattered Tufted Ducks. Near a large willow and a clear stream we enjoyed views of a confiding Treecreeper, then for a few seconds a Cetti's Warbler landed for a few seconds in a young, bare tree and Tony Robinson was quick enough to snatch a photo - unfortunately a single leaf got in the way of its front end! 
Centi's Warbler (c) 2016 Tony Robinson
 Female Orange-Tip