Tuesday 19 May 2020

Reeds and Sedge 17th May 2020

I met my birding friend Moth, at a social distance of course, on the Thames Path near Lower Whitley Farm. He having walked from Pinkhill to meet me at a very early hour. Mist was rising from the river and the air was still  but certainly not silent as bird song seemed to come from every bush and tree.

It was another day and therefore, for me, another self administered dose of mindfulness and the natural world to keep my anxieties at bay. Walking and talking in the company of Moth also helped enormously, as phone conversations are all well and good but being in the  actual company of someone, and more importantly one who understands and knows is infinitely preferable. I was feeling a little raw, especially after being criticised for visiting Farmoor by someone less willing to show that same understanding and compassion.

Moth was looking for Cuckoos but we never got near enough to one for him to get a picture but at least he saw one, high in a distant willow tree. Subsequently, throughout the morning, we saw a Cuckoo several times and indeed on one occasion two, a male and a female, that flew very close to us but at such speed and in such a confined area of bushes and trees it was impossible to record the moment.

We walked along chatting, just normal conversing, just normal birding in these totally abnormal times. I was relaxed now, the tensions and strange troubling dreams that come to me every night banished to nothing in the still of the early morning.

We found ourselves at that particular part of the river bank where Sedge Warblers  abound and one individual continues to sing loudly all the day long but has yet to attract a mate. Of course, having confidently told Moth  that this particular warbler was always on show, when we reached its territory it was nowhere to be seen. I knew the warbler would put in an appearance sooner rather than later and after a few minutes he did not let me down and flew from some sallows and dropped into the dense vegetation below his favourite perch. Then,  as is his way, he hopped up through the dead twigs, singing as he did, until he reached the very top of his favourite perch and then, singing for all his worth, poured out the helter skelter of notes that passes for a Sedge Warbler's song. The effort this bird puts in is remarkable, as hour after hour, day after day and week after week, he sings but so far to no avail.

Moth, like the rest of us, succumbed to the Sedge Warbler's charms and took a number of pictures. It is just too tempting to resist.

Having seen and admired this Sedge Warbler many times I was keener to get a picture of a male Reed Bunting, which are, at this time of year, rather splendid with a black head and bib, a broad white collar and streaked, rich brown upperparts. A pair had fledged young in a reedbed by the river and the male led me a merry dance as he arrived with various items of food for his young, once a mayfly and another time bright green caterpillars, but he always contrived to manage to put at least one reed stem between himself and my camera lens.

Male Reed Bunting with unidentified green caterpillars

Male Reed Bunting with a Mayfly
While standing and waiting for the Reed Bunting to fly in once more, we became aware of a lot of Reed Warbler activity, both in the same reed bed and in a ditch of reeds on the opposite side of the track. A territorial dispute was in full flow between individual Reed Warblers on either side of the track as each had a territory that abutted to a side of the track and woe betide the rival who trespassed onto the other side. If one rival flew across to the other side it was instantly rebuffed and on a couple of occasions feathers flew but no harm was done. The dispute generally only involved a lot of singing, the scratchy rhythmic song notched up to high volume from the protagonists. A sing off to see off a rival. It also appeared to involve more than the two main protagonists and we were certain there were more than those two birds involved. Reed Warblers are loosely colonial in their breeeding habits but nevertheless are fiercely territorial. Possibly that was the situation here.

So engrossed were they in their territorial ambitions that occasionally, only occasionally, they would show themselves in the open but only for the briefest of moments and you had to be razor sharp to seize the opportunity. Countless times I failed. Reed Warblers are frankly a nightmare to locate and see in the maze of dead reed stems which they so love, hiding deep down towards the base where they cling to a thin stem and sing. Brown of plumage and unremarkable to look at but what bird needs bright plumage when it spends its entire life lurking in the mysterious depths of reeds, the deep leafy cover of sallows and abundant riparian vegetation.

The above two images show more typical views of a Reed Warbler!

Time passed un-noticed as we tried countless times to find a Reed Warbler in the open. Time after time we were about to get the picture but the Reed Warbler would see us first and drop to the base of the reeds. Quick of movement, they became brown apparitions as they moved effortlessly through the reed stems but finally one perched for a few seconds, unobstructed by stems, and that was all that was required. Each of us concentrated on our own particular individual and eventually we were both satisfied. In my case hundreds of blurry images resulted in a few that were acceptable.

Reed Warblers are not uncommon in southern and central England but do not breed further north in Britain.They breed in southern Sweden and Finland and extend east as far as Ukraine and south through Italy, the southern Balkans, the Black Sea coast and Crimea.They also breed  throughout France and Spain and as far south as the countries of North Africa.

They are a common and widespread summer migrant but their reclusive nature and unremarkable appearance means they are often overlooked when not singing. Even on autumn migration they usually seek dense cover and remain for the most part hidden, low down and out of view. They spend the winter south of the Sahara in west and central parts of Africa .

Two hours had passed and I had forgotten all about my worries.They of course came back once we left the Reed Warblers but that two hour break gave me the vital time to recharge my resolve to take on the  daily challenges my condition brings.

Nature really is wonderful and I thank my lucky stars that I have such an interest in the natural world.

It really is, and has been, my saviour in times of trouble past and present.

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