Wednesday 10 June 2020

Warbler Therapy 10th June 2020

When the world, including Britain went into meltdown as the corona virus swept across from China I found it difficult to comprehend just how bad matters would get. Progressively the news became worse and in the end we were all confined to our homes and a normal existence ceased. I suffered this for two weeks but then had to get out of the house and immerse myself in the natural world to save myself from going into a deep depression. Anxiety I could just about cope with and that is ongoing but  I fear depression which is infinitely worse.

My salvation came by walking that part of the Thames Path in Oxfordshire that runs from Lower Whitley Farm to Pinkhill Lock and this year the months of April and May were for the most part blessed with superb weather. Perhaps it is just coincidence that warblers seemed to be present in larger numbers than usual and walking the Thames Path I saw ten species of warbler with Sedge Warblers particularly abundant. I counted a minimum of nineteen singing males from one end of my walk to the other.

One Sedge Warbler in particular caught my eye, singing from an area of emerging vegetation in a secluded corner by the river. The reason it caught my eye was that it showed little concern about my presence and sang from a prominent perch above the vegetation, highly visible and apparently untroubled by any human spectator standing close by. 

'Reg the Sedge'
When I first discovered the Sedge Warbler, a newly arrived Grasshopper Warbler was also using the same perch to sing from and obviously had designs of making this small area its summer home but the Sedge Warbler had other ideas and chivvied it relentlessly every time it tried to ascend the perch to sing and eventually the Grasshopper Warbler fell silent and retreated into the undergrowth.

Grasshopper Warbler
The next day there was no sight or sound of the Grasshopper Warbler which presumably had given up on establishing a territory here and attracting a mate, moving to somewhere more congenial. The Sedge Warbler was, as yesterday, singing lustily, interspersing its singing with short display flights, twenty or so feet  up into the air and then parachuting back down to earth on outstretched wings.

Day after day 'Reg the Sedge', as I had by now affectionately christened him, sang ardently, a non stop outpouring of passionate song accompanied by numerous brief flights into the air to emphasise his presence, just in case any female might be around to notice but day after day I never saw any sign of a mate. The other Sedge Warblers in adjoining territories had all attracted a female but Reg remained a bachelor.

It is said the female Sedge Warbler selects her mate based on the quality of the song so maybe Reg was not up to the mark although his efforts sounded pretty impressive to me.

I like to think Reg unwittingly helped me to cope with my worries, as knowing he would be there on his song perch every morning and seeing him every day was something I could look forward to and enjoy. A ray of hope. A permanence in a now very uncertain world. The simple uncomplicated pleasure of being close to a wild bird, singing its heart out and oblivious to the human tragedy going on about it was therapy of a kind. It was a re-assurance that it was not the end of the world and the Sedge Warbler's indomitable spirit gave me an inspiration of sorts to fight off my personal demons.

Day after day Reg sang and made his song flights but remained forever unattached. Day after day he sang from his favourite perch, his body and wings shaking with the effort of issuing a tirade of notes at machine gun intensity for virtually all the hours of the day but no female came to join him. He became locally famous and many people came to see him and take his photograph not that he knew or indeed cared.

I could but feel sorry for him, so much effort, so much energy expended for nought but my feelings are not within Reg's compass to comprehend or possess. He was just responding to the genetics of his kind and seasonal changes in his tiny body which caused him to migrate from Africa, select a territory on arriving here, sing for as long as it takes to attract a mate and, well that is as far as we have got with Reg. 

Throughout May Reg sang on but then towards the end of the month, the area of rough vegetation occupied by Reg was discovered and coveted by another warbler that had migrated from Africa, a Common Whitethroat. 

Larger than Reg, the whitethroat usurped him from his favourite songpost and he fled to the nearby sallow bush and continued to sing from there. The Common Whitethroat also sang from the same sallow as well as a willow on the other side of the patch of now thick vegetation and at first the two warblers seemed to be in conflict. The whitethroat was dominant while Reg had to take second place and for long periods he fell silent. I did not return for a few days after the arrival of the whitethroat but today I returned to see how things were. Would Reg still be there or would he, like the Grasshopper Warbler he had chased off, also have decided to move on?

Not a bit of it. Rounding the corner on the Thames Path I found he was singing as loud and as long as ever. Still flinging himself skywards then planing back to earth, still with no sign of a mate. I felt a surge of emotion run through me as one would on encountering an absent friend. He was still here, unflinching and undeterred in his resolve to sing and attract a mate. How long he will continue I do not know but this little corner by the river occupied by an irrepressible small warbler has become a place to feel at peace with myself. It is temporary I know but by the time Reg has to leave on his southward migration I hope both myself and the world will be in a much better place.

Possibly it is already over for Reg and he will remain a bachelor.There is often a surplus of males in warbler populations but there is still time and certainly Reg has not given in but I fear the game may be up for this year and maybe forever as the perils of  the long migration to and from Africa make Reg's chances of a return less than even.

Today I noticed there seemed to be an acceptance of each other's presence by the two birds and Reg had returned to his favourite perch to sing, as well as utilising the sallow, while the whitethroat also sang from the sallow but at the highest point possible, well away from Reg. 

When Reg was not singing from his favoured perch the Common Whitethroat also sang from there and busied himself building a 'cock nest', in between singing and sky dancing, almost as frequently and loudly as Reg.

Male Common Whitethroats build a flimsy half built nest or nests that the female inspects and she will select one of them to complete and then lay her eggs in. I watched the whitethroat bringing billfulls of poplar fluff or possibly spider's nests to decorate the rim of a nest it had built, descending into the now rank vegetation where presumably the nest was situated. 

Common Whitethroat with nest decoration
The only problem is that he too does not have a mate and it is getting late for him also. Could these two unpaired birds be unfortunate enough to not fulfil their breeding cycle? 

We will have to wait and see and hope.

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