Monday 15 June 2020

The Blyth's Reed at Far Ings NNR 13th June 2020

Many years ago I stood with my friend and birding colleague Hugh on Gramborough Hill which is not a hill at all but a large mound that looks over the saltmarsh towards the village of Salthouse, on the North Norfolk coast.

We were regarding a large bramble clump below us in the company of about forty people hoping to see a Blyth's Reed Warbler that had been found earlier in the day in the bramble. It was very elusive but after a considerable wait it duly appeared at the edge of the bramble but not for very long.

I was convinced it was the bird but Hugh was more circumspect and suggested that there could also be Reed Warblers in the bramble.Up to now we have differed in our respective opinions, with Hugh not counting it whilst I did but, as ever, doubts lingered.

Now, years later I was presented with the opportunity to rectify matters  and confirm once and for all that I had seen a Blyth's Reed Warbler. An unprecedented minimum of half a dozen Blyth's Reed Warblers have so far been found in Britain in the last couple of weeks and more are being found as I  write this two days later, with new birds being discovered from the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England to Caithness in the extreme north of Scotland. This unprecedented influx is possibly due to a strong northeasterly airflow drifting individuals of this normally Eurasian breeding warbler, west to our shores. Their usual breeding range is to the east of Britain from southern Finland eastwards across northwest and central Russia to Siberia and they spend their winter in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Consequently any individual arriving in Britain is well off course and a recognised rarity if found but, after this current influx, maybe not so rare!

One in particular is currently putting on a fine show at Far Ings National Nature Reserve which lies in North Lincolnshire on the southern shore of the Humber Estuary. It was not only showing itself reasonably well, which is unusual for such a skulking species but also singing continuously, so not only could I see one for definite but also hear it singing. This bird was first discovered on 7th June and looks like it has established a small territory in a reed filled ditch, sandwiched between Far Ings Lane and a large body of water called Target Lake on the other side of the ditch. 

I was all set to go on Saturday when Moth sent me a text early on Saturday morning, at 4.54am to be precise, telling me he had a mind to go for one of two Red footed Falcons either in Fen Drayton Cambridgeshire or Upper Beeding in West Sussex. Already awake due to virus anxieties I replied I might be interested in going for the Sussex bird. At just after 6am he sent another text saying he was going for the Sussex bird. I was now in a quandary, and changed my mind about the warbler and decided to follow Moth who had already left for Sussex.

I dithered around at home getting myself together and then set off, calling Moth as I circumnavigated Oxford to find he was already in Sussex but could not find the precise location where the falcon was to be found. There was still no news on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) about either the warbler or the falcon. I drove on southwards and at High Wycombe checked RBA again, to discover the warbler was still at Far Ings and showing well.  

I had already been driving for an hour towards Sussex. So what did I do?  I called Moth to advise there was a change of plan, wished him luck with the falcon and crossed back onto the northbound carriageway of the M40. More than a little unsure about what I was doing, I felt happier sticking to my original plan. Something I should have done in the first place. I can only blame my lack of conviction and indecision on my current sleep deprivation, courtesy of corona virus worries and all the other dross that life throws at you from time to time.

Heading north my satnav told me I would arrive at my destination at 10.57 which was three and a half hours into the uncertain future. I was relaxed, driving on comparatively traffic free roads but as, heading for the Humber Estuary  always seems to take forever, I stopped once at Tibshelf Services. Normally busy, it was on this morning virtually deserted as I tried to cope with all the directional signs now in place to keep us safe from the dreaded virus. A scrub of my hands with hand sanitizer only served to emphasise what a strange world we are now living in.

Back in the car, the sun was left behind and a light fog, due to the high humidity descended, necessitating headlights. My heart sank. Surely this would lift before I got to Far Ings? It did, approaching Doncaster, and it was with some relief I turned off the motorway in bright sunshine and after a few turns found myself on Far Ings Lane which led to Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust's car park at Ness End Farm.

Far Ings Lane
I found a space and looking further down the lane it was obvious where the warbler was, for I could see a line of birders stood along a section of the lane with a hedge at their backs, looking across the lane cum track at a reed filled ditch with a bank of reeds and some small trees on the other side.

Joining the twenty or so other birders I learned that the warbler was only being seen occasionally but had been showing much more in the open earlier in the morning. A familiar tale. I resigned myself to a long wait but in the meantime was pleased to hear the bird singing almost continuously. A song that bears absolutely no resemblance to a Reed Warbler, with no suggestion of the rhythmic grating, scratchy notes of its commoner cousin but a slower song with pauses, consisting of a series of pleasant tuneful notes and  repeated melodic whistles with some mimetic calls.This bird clearly incorporated the alarm call of a Chaffinch in its utterly distinctive song. One thing is for sure, if one does by some miracle turn up amongst the many Reed Warblers at Farmoor there will be no mistaking it on my part.

Blyth's Reed Warbler is very similar in appearance to both a Reed Warbler and a Marsh Warbler. In the case of the former it can. with good views be differentiated on plumage tone and colour. Reed Warblers have a distinct rufous tinge on their rump and uppertail coverts whereas Blyth's Reed Warbler is a colder, greyish looking bird on its upperparts.There are also various subtle differences in primary projection, shorter in Blyth's, the alula feather and tertials are almost concolourus with the upperparts and the bill is paler looking. If this was not troubling enough, the closely related Marsh Warbler looks superficially similar to both species. However if they sing the problem is resolved as each species has a diagnostic song.

The 'Blyth's Reed' remained hidden for the most part but its almost constant singing enabled one to follow it as it moved through the reeds and ventured into a couple of small trees. It had a territory that extended along the ditch and the bank on the other side for about fifty metres and would sing from deep in the reeds and sometimes higher in the trees that marked the boundary of its small territory but frustratingly, when it left the ditch  it would always sing on the far side of the tree it chose, so we could not see it. 

The reed filled ditch and hawthorn which comprised part of the Blyth's Reed Warbler's territory. Target Lake is in the background
For two hours I saw very little apart from fleeting views as the bird ascended a reed to give a glimpse of its head and upperbody but at least I had now laid to rest any doubt about my having seen a Blyth's Reed Warbler in Britain. 

The current situation was not what I had planned and not what had been reported from previous days. Showing well? I don't think so. Still I was here now and prepared to do whatever I could to see the bird well. I had all day. The warbler continued to tantalise and granted just fleeting glimpses of itself before slipping into cover again but sang virtually constantly with only short periods of silence.

I think, possibly it was more wary due to the lane being lined with birders and we were only tens of metres away from it although it has to be said it never seemed overly alarmed, only occasionally showing concern by calling a sharp and distinctive teck teck.

Although difficult to see it was never dull, as everyone was constantly in a state of anticipation about seeing it in the open. It would briefly perch in a small hawthorn tree opposite us but just as you raised the camera it would dive into obscurity in the reeds. At one point we could see it in the reeds not more than a couple of metres away from us, searching for food but never fully coming out of cover. Around one o' clock it finally burst into full song and sang non stop for at least forty minutes, perching almost openly in the hawthorn opposite us and then flying to a larger adjacent hawthorn to continue singing. This sudden revealing of itself, passionately singing, was the opportunity we had all been waiting for and I joined the rest in clicking away with the camera but the bright sun did us no favours

After its prolnged spell of singing it dropped back into cover and we resumed our by now familiar 'there it is, there it isn't' routine once more. The majority of birders left after the singing stopped and the warbler appeared more content to spend time in the ditch rather than in the bank of reeds beyond. This presented random opportunities to see it almost unobscured by any reeds or vegetation and finally one of these opportunities gave me the chance to get some decent views of it singing and feeding in the reeds. Not the classic shots of it clinging to a reed stem out in the open but it would do and I was content.

The colder uniform colour tones are clearly visible as is the shorter primary projection beyond the tertials

I waited another two hours but never got another opportunity to see it clearly. Fleeting, tantalising glimpses of its greyish brown form flitting through the dense tangle of reeds, dog rose and bramble  on the far side of the ditch were all I was granted. The sun was hot in the lane, a lane on a sunny Sunday afternoon that had become relatively busy with cyclists, the occasional car, even a tractor and the general public passing to and fro. This did not bode well for any chance of the warbler showing itself any better and I decided to call time. I had been here for five hours after all, stood in this one small area of the lane. 

It had not been exactly as I had planned but I was satisfied nonetheless, having experienced a nice day out in pleasing  surroundings and at a place I had not been to before. Best of all I could now say, categorically, I had definitely seen a Blyth's Reed Warbler in Britain and a singing individual at that.

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