“I love Berlin in spring,” my work colleague Alexa said. “It’s not too warm, the leaves have just come out and the nightingales are here.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Nightingales? In Berlin? Yes, she said, Berlin is on their migratory path. “They’re all over the place calling for a mate”. Ah, another flock of tourists here for the summer in some show-off mating ritual - they’d best keep a low profile in Kreuzberg, I thought. When I pressed her for actual locations she reeled off the places I could hear them: a small sidestreet off Invalidenstrasse up by the Hauptbahnhof, Tiergarten and, Kreuzberg’s Hasenheide park.
I scribbled down her tips, determined to hunt them out. “You have to go at night though,” she said. “Best at midnight and beyond, but any time after 10 will do.”
I started to plan my night-time nightingale adventure. As I contemplated whether it was a good idea to hang around Hasenheide at night, it occurred to me how this bird was a warbling, if slightly tenuous, connection between my adopted new capital and my old London home.
In Hampstead, London’s equivalent of Charlottenburg, the poet John Keats sat under a tree in 1819 and heard a nightingale sing “of summer in full-throated ease”. Ode to a Nightingale is a wonderful poem and you can even visit the garden where it poured its heart out – although a nightingale hasn’t been heard in that spot since.
And then there’s that famous London song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, performed by everyone from Vera Lynn to Frank Sinatra. And it was used, in another tenuous link, by erstwhile Berlin resident Fritz Lang as a recurring musical theme in one of his films.
I had always assumed that no one could ever have heard a nightingale sing in London. Traffic and pollution had seen them off, I thought. But here someone was telling me they were singing in Berlin. So if I couldn’t hear a nightingale in Berkeley Square, I must just get a chance in Potsdamer Platz instead.
So off I went on my wild nightingale chase. I set out at 11.00pm and made for the Hauptbahnhof and on to Lesser-Ury-Weg. It was a dark alley with a housing estate on one side and a hedge on the other. I could hear low voices. My internal urban alarm started bleeping. Was I about to be mugged? No. The soft, low Turkish voices came from behind the hedge, where the trees were and I hoped my nightingale. But with their talking, and the TVs and the children crying through the open windows of the flats behind, I doubted I would get to hear one there.
So I scrubbed that one off my list and went on to Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz entrance, as instructed.
It was nearly midnight. Dark. I walked as far in as I dared. A bike cycled right past and the rider, startled by my silent presence, jumped. A midnight jogger pounded the paths. Why would anyone want to run at that time of night, I wondered. I listened intently. No birds. But what was that? Something in the bushes... and it didn’t sound feathered. Yes, it was a mating call, but it had a worryingly human sound. I decided to walk on. Quickly.
Going deeper into Tiergarten suddenly seemed a little risky, but it paid off. In among the trees, when the wind died down, there was a little warble on one side of the path. It happened again. And then another one joined in. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, stumbled into the bushes and tried to record it. Listen to what I caught here. You have to agree it’s beautiful, isn’t it? The first one to write Ode to a Berlin Nightingale or A Nightingale Sang in Potsdamer Platz and email it to me, gets a prize.
If there are any other unusual birds or wildlife that I should know about in Berlin, please let me know. My nightingale experience has made me think a bit about green spaces and gardens in city – the small and private ones not just the big parks. So if you know of a little allotment or vegetable patch or garden, or a particularly peaceful green city space, please email me.
You can send Mark email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @deutschmarkuk