Sunday 20 June 2021

My Third Blyth's Reed Warbler 19th June 2021

Peter sent me a text on Friday asking if I  would like to accompany him on a trip to the West Midlands to see a Blyth's Reed Warbler that had taken up territory on the RSPB's Middleton Lakes Reserve, which is near Tamworth in Staffordshire. I needed  no second invitation, especially as he offered to pick me up from my home and drive me to the reserve.

Peter had never seen a Blyth's and I had only ever seen two in this country.The first being an autumn migrant at Gramborough Hill in Norfolk, many years ago and the second being a particularly showy spring individual at Far Ings NNR in Lincolnshire only last year.

The individual at Middleton Lakes, first discovered on 17th June was, just as the bird in Lincolnshire, holding a territory and singing constantly. Images on social media left us in no doubt as to how showy it was and with a drive of only around ninety minutes it was too good an opportunity to forgo. This inland record at Middleton Lakes is still a very rare occurrence as most birds are seen on the coast.

Peter collected me from my home at 7am and I had already learnt via Twitter that morning that the warbler was still singing and performing well at the reserve. One intrepid soul had reported he had seen it at 4.30am this very morning, so the drive to the reserve was relaxed as we knew the bird was still present.

An hour and a half' brought us to the reserve, tucked away down a road called Bodymore Heath Lane and notable for the fact we had to pass the huge complex that is Aston Villa FC's training ground. Driving into the reserve car park we found it already quite full with cars, indicating the warbler was attracting many admirers.The star bird was to be found, according to RBA (Rare Bird Alert), midway along the River View Path and this entailed a walk of over a mile, our winding course taking us through a complex of woodland, over a canal and then into an open landscape of large scrapes and reedy lagoons, the former populated by raucous blizzards of Black Headed Gulls, guarding their half grown young.

The Tamworth and Fazely Canal

Passing returning birders who had already seen the warbler, we were given regular directions as to what track to follow to get to the site. The reserve, created from former gravel pits is very large, 160 hectares, with a bewildering number of trails and our walk seemed to go on for a long time but was no more than half an hour's steady amble before we came to the River Tame and shortly after took yet another innocuous, narrow grass track running parallel with the river, leading to where we could overlook an area of backwater and riparian vegetation with a medium sized willow facing us on the opposite bank.

The Willow favoured by the Blyth's Reed Warbler

I had been mildly concerned about our comparative late departure, as this being a Saturday and with not much else rare around, the Blyth's would inevitably be a popular bird and my fears were confirmed on finding around twenty to thirty birders ranged in two cramped cul de sacs of trampled vegetation scrutinising the willow on the opposite bank.

The Blyth's Warbler was hardly keeping to itself, being highly audible, broadcasting its mimetic song virtually constantly. I could well understand how, on first being discovered, this bird was identified as a Marsh Warbler, that other well known bird mimic but later re-identified as the rarer Blyth's Reed Warbler. Paradoxically Marsh Warblers, which used to breed here regularly are now very rare and becoming increasingly so but Blyth's, formerly very rare are for unknown reasons, becoming more frequent visitors to Britain.They are still a rare bird to see and hear but since the year 2000 the number of occurrences has increased markedly.Traditionally they occur as vagrants, mostly in the autumn months of September and early October, with Shetland being a particular favourite location, but now birds singing in spring and summer, presumably from the Scandinavian populations, have become more frequent and have been found singing and holding territory for the last two years in Britain. Could they be expanding their range which currently lies to the east of Britain and maybe a breeding population will become established in Britain? Stranger things have happened in the birding world but only time will tell.

Blyth's Reed Warblers currently breed in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and European Russia, across central Siberia to Lake Baikal and the upper reaches of the Lena River, then south through Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to northern Pakistan. They migrate to spend the winter in the Indian sub continent as far south as Sri Lanka and east to northwest Burma.

Its name is misleading, as unlike the Reed Warbler it does not inhabit or breed in reeds but prefers overgrown clearings in forests or bushes along riversides and sings its markedly different song from a perch in a bush or small tree rather than deep within reedbeds.

Superfically they look similar to both Reed and Marsh Warblers but subtle differences can identify them. That is if you see them well. Here, a singing male holding territory, made it comparatively easy but try the same thing with a skulking autumn migrant and it is far from straightforward.

They are slighty smaller than a Reed Warbler, less robust looking and the bill is weaker and finely pointed. Overall their upperpart plumage is medium brown with some olive tones and they lack any rufous on the rump.The underparts are mainly dull white with the chin and throat appearing purer white.Its wings are shorter than either Reed or Marsh Warbler and the projection of its primaries beyond the tertials is much shorter than in the other two species.The wing can often look featurless and uniform with no dark centres to the feathers.

The area from which to view the warbler was quite restricted but somehow everyone managed to find a clear view of the willow and our first sight of the warbler was through a mesh of pointy green leaves.It was singing from about half way up on the left hand side of the willow.Unfortunately, although it could be seen well with bins and scope, it favoured a perch inside the canopy and the leaves made it nigh on impossible to get a clear line of sight for a photograph.

Time after time it would sing from its favoured perch but on only a couple of occasions did it provide the briefest of opportunities to get an acceptable image. I think the number of people present probably had something to do with its reluctance to show itself more openly, as earlier in the morning, when the number of observers would have been down in single figures it had obviously been less reluctant to leave cover, judging by the excellent published images.

There was, however, nothing that could be done about the situation and everyone to their credit was well behaved and considerate, so for the next two hours we enjoyed watching the bird and hoping it might, just might, come more into the open but it never did.

On my way back home Mark rang me to say he was going to see the Blyth's tomorrow with Adrian and Les. I told him I had already been to see it and about the problems with seeing it well, the numbers of people and that I was also planning a return trip tomorrow to try and do better. We resolved to meet at the site around 5am on Sunday morning when there would be few other people about, if any. 

On Sunday morning I left home at 2.45am and found, as hoped, that mine was the only car at the deserted reserve car park at 4.30am.The gates were still locked so I left the car in the adjacent lane and getting my gear together set off on the long walk to the warbler site. It was gloomy and gently raining and had been since reaching the outskirts of Birmingham. Pressing on I followed the track under now dripping woodland leaves and trudged onwards through long wet grass, the bottom of my trousers becoming soaked in the process and a growing awareness that my waterproof jacket was no longer up to the job.

As I neared the site I could hear the Blyth's singing just as energetically as yesterday but was surprised to find I was not the first birder to get here. A local had beaten me to it and told me the warbler had been much more showy so far this morning and was regularly perching in more photographable situations in the willow.This was good news and what I had hoped would be the case. Shame about the weather though. 

We settled down to watch the warbler and by some miracle of fate the rain, predicted to fall all morning, ceased.The light was still very dull, so I forgot about photogrpahy and continued to watch the warbler, singing for all it was worth with pointed mandibles wide open, exposing a golden yellow gape. 

What a repertoire of mimickry it had. I assume some of the purer notes were its own but I identified many other bird calls incorporated in its singing. Song Thrush, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Goldfinch, Blue Tit,Willow Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat all featured, even Green Sandpiper at one point. Another interesting fact was that  the purer notes of its song came when its bill was wide open but the more harsh notes were produced with the bill closed or partially so, and the throat feathers noticeably swollen.

Mark, Adrian and Les arrived shortly after and all of us waited for the warbler to give us the opportunity we craved, to see it well and photograph it. For the most part it remained partially hidden by the surrounding leaves but on a number of occasions it allowed itself to remain almost in the open. It sang constantly, even when moving around in the tree, always eventually returning to one favoured perch on the left side of the tree. On occasions it would drop down out of the tree into the thick tangle of nettles and umbellifers below, to feed on insects which it acrobatically plucked from stems and the undersides of leaves, all the while singing, and when it did feed in this manner gave the best opportunity to photograph it free of surrounding vegetation. 

Mind, you had to be quick, as it flitted from stem to stem at great speed, constantly moving and never remaining anywhere for long. Always rapidly returning to its favourite tree.

The morning, still very early, was damp and grey and the soft rain had permeated my clothing, making me feel cold but the minute the warbler moved in the tree or dropped down to feed below, all was forgotten.Each one of us, to a greater or lesser extent got what we wanted in the end, although you are never totally satisfied and feel you could do more.

Finally at around 9.30am we headed back to our cars and out of the now returning rain.