Thursday 17 June 2021

River Warbler Redemption 16th June 2021

Our week's holiday on the Isle of Arran, which finished last Sunday, inflicted possibly the most frustrating seven days of my birding life. First a River Warbler was discovered in Somerset the day we left for Arran, then a Red necked Stint which I have never seen in Britain spent three days in Northumberland, to be followed by a Sulphur bellied Warbler, another bird I have never seen and a first for Britain no less, that spent just one day on Lundy Island in Devon.The final blow came when a Pacific Swift arrived in Northumberland the day before we were due to leave Arran. Needless to say it had gone the next day. Ouch!

I should have known this would happen as it occurs every year on our annual early summer family visit to Arran but usually only involves missing one rarity not four. Next year we are going in early April, hopefully to avoid inflicting any further birding angst.

All the birds, bar the River Warbler, having departed for points unknown before we returned home to Oxfordshire, it was left for me to contemplate a trip to the River Warbler that was continuing to sing long and loud in its favoured reed bed at the RSPB's Ham Wall Nature Reserve on the Somerset Levels.

River Warblers are a very rare visitor to Britain with only forty eight previous records. I have only ever seen one, many years ago in Norfolk and have a drawing of it by Jan Wilczur hanging on my wall to this day.

They are a summer migrant, coming to breed in central and eastern Europe. Recently they have started to spread into northwest Europe, from Germany to Finland and east through central Russia to western Siberia. They migrate through the Middle East and northeast Africa to winter in East Africa.

River Warblers are superficially similar to our more familiar, summer visiting, Grasshopper Warbler and  like the 'gropper' are  arch skulkers, hiding in dense vegetation, often but not exclusively near water and rarely showing themselves. This particular River Warbler at Ham Wall was exceptional in that it showed little evidence of a skulking nature when singing, perching very obviously on reed stems as it poured forth its peculiar song, a prolonged machine like buzzing. It was miles away from its normal range having decided that a reed bed in southwest England was a suitable place to set up a territory and proceeded to sing loudly, virtually all day long, in an attempt to attract a mate. 

I decided that having missed so many 'good birds' whilst on holiday I would go and see this very popular rarity which would at least reduce some of the self inflicted frustration I had endured. An early start was required so I left home at four am to make the two hour journey to Somerset. The day was going to be hot and sunny and even at my early departure time the air was warm.

An hour and a half later, turning off the motorway, I  drove deep into the hinterland of Somerset and was soon passing along narrow lanes bordered by high hedges with verdant meadows beyond. Deeper into The Levels, a strange feeling of otherworldliness descended as the landscape transformed into something wilder and less manicured. The reserve car park came upon me suddenly and was almost empty on my arrival. I set off down the dusty main path, a former railway track, following it to cross a wooden bridge spanning a small channel of water and then walk along a grass track with vast reed beds stretching away to my left.

A few hundred metres further and I  joined two other birders who were standing and looking out over the reeds. They informed me the warbler had been seen singing here half an hour ago but currently there was no sign of it.I felt a little disappointed as I had, for no justifiable reason expected it to be singing when I arrived. I settled to watch a pair of Reed Warbers, fussing and  flitting amongst the reeds and for well over half an hour there was little else to see apart from a late patrolling Barn Owl. Then another brown coloured warbler flew into the reeds and there was the River Warbler, which without more ado sidled up a dead reed stem and proceeded to open its bill wide,very wide and sing, revealing a deep pink gape in the process. 

Although superficially similar to a Grasshopper Warbler their upperparts are to my eyes a richer olive brown and unlike its close relative the Grasshopper Warbler, unstreaked.The underparts are plain buff white except on the chest where there are noticeable dark streaks and mottling. The undertail coverts showed prominent pale fringes and extended well down towards the tip of the broad rounded tail. 

I watched as it sang for a short spell before falling silent. It remained perched, sat on its reed stem in the sun, closed its eyes and briefly dozed. It was a picture of supreme contentment but it never closed its eyes for more than a second. A brief spell of preening then ensued before it indulged in more eye closing or alternatively sitting fluffed and immobile, watching the Reed Warblers. A final burst of song preceded it flying quite some way further along the reed bed and out of sight.

I was told the spot where I was standing was, by common consent, the best place to observe the warbler and it would soon return, so I waited and then waited some more but there was not sight or sound of the bird. I had watched it for around twenty minutes and it had departed at around seven am. Gradually, as the time passed and it remained invisible, more and more people arrived until there was quite a crowd lined along the track, hoping for a sight of the warbler. Occasional bursts of song emanated from the reeds, causing a ripple of excited movement in the crowd but the bird itself was always frustratingly invisible.

The wait carried on. Surely it would return soon? It didn't and as the heat of the day increased it seemed less likely that the bird would sing or show itself. Regular sightings of Great White Egrets, floating majestically over the reeds on huge bowed and dazzlingly white wings relieved the monotony and up to four Bitterns kept me interested as did the occasional Marsh Harrier but the star performer was having an off day.

I dozed in the warm sun, a breeze slowly increasing to sway the reeds into a gentle rustling murmur. An endless rhythmic and soothing sound that invited sleep. I would be alerted by others if the warbler began to sing. Most people gradually became bored of waiting and left but a remaining core of determined birders stuck it out and then at just after two pm, came the welcome sound of the warbler singing. It did not last long and was coming from the reeds well off to my left. Some folk hurried away to get closer in an endeavour to see it but I stood my ground and as I hoped the elusive bird flew nearer and perched openly in some twigs in front of a bank of reeds.

It was not as close as in the morning but was nevertheless fully out in the open and singing for all its worth, continuing for well over five minutes before suddenly flying off back along the reed bed and disappearing once more.

I had been here nine hours. It was definitely time to leave but it had not been an unpleasant time as my surroundings were so tranquil and enjoyable. Serenaded by Blackcaps and Garden Warblers I  made my way back along the track to the car park, the white light of bright sunshine, so rare in this cloud shrouded land, creating a shimmer of reflection off the vegetation. 

I felt better about things now and back on track.There will be other rare birds that I will miss and others I will see and enjoy in the future.That is the thrill of birding.The unexpected is always possible, promising yet more roller coasters of emotion. 

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