Thursday, 23 June 2022

The Great Reed Warbler in Nottinghamshire 22nd June 2022

Unable to sleep, a millon things churning in my head and with reading a book not doing the trick, I rose at 5am, reasoning that some sort of physical activity would take my mind off the cares and worries that steal up on one in the night. I headed for Nottinghamshire where a Great Reed Warbler has taken up territory, since June 4th, in a reedbed at the RSPB's Langford Lowfields Reserve which lies to the southwest of the small Nottinghamshire village of Collingham in the Trent Valley.

Great Reed Warblers are a rare vagrant to Britain (308 records to date) but one or more are recorded annually, with this year delivering another singing male to Snettisham in Norfolk. They are often first identified by their lusty singing and can remain for extended periods in the hope of attracting a mate which is very unlikely. Their breeding areas lie further to the south and east of Britain, in northwest Africa, continental Europe from southern Sweden, Estonia and western Russia to the Mediterranean and east as far as Ukraine and Asia Minor. They spend the winter in tropical Africa from Senegal and Kenya south to northern parts of the Cape Province in South Africa.

Despite the early hour the sun had already broken the horizon on this, the day after the summer solstice. Due to the timing of departure from my home in Oxfordshire I encountered little problem heading northwards on the roads and the day was promising to be fine, hot and sunny. My spirits were immediately lifted at the prospect of fine weather and a rare bird to see and arriving in the small reserve car park at 7.30am I found I was the only person there and now feeling good about life.

The walk to the reserve proper takes about twenty minutes, following a narrow dusty track, first through a wood and then bounded by high hedgerows which at various points bower overhead to form a living tunnel of lush greenery. The hedges were alive with birds, warblers mainly, Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Common Whitethroats. A male Blackcap stopped on a branch to let me pass. Its bill full of a blue and black damselfly destined for its young in a nest nearby.

Further beyond the hedgerow, Reed and Sedge Warblers sang from their hiding places in reed fringed lagoons whose waters faithfully reflected a cloud free, blue, morning sky. Here, before and around me, was summer at its most bounteous and a day in which to rejoice at being alive, all cares now forgotten.

Reaching the wooden gate in the hedgerow that grants access to the reserve I could already hear the Great Reed Warbler singing despite it still being over a hundred metres distant. The strength of its voice is extraordinary. Passing through the gate I walked down to the grass track that winds around the main lagoon that lay, glass like, before me.

The reserve itself is a joint project between the RSPB and Tarmac, who were and are extracting sand and gravel from all around here. The aim is to create wetland habitat on a grand scale so initially, once quarrying had ceased on a 35 hectare area it was converted into a reserve of lagoons and large reedbeds with wild flower meadows, scrub and woodland. Further quarrying will be taking place in succession further along the river valley so the reserve has the potential to grow ever larger.

A gentle breeze blew intermittently but I sensed that today was going to be very warm indeed as I walked the fifty metres of grass track to where the warbler was in full voice.The reeds it has chosen are right by the track separated only by a thick bramble hedge, its white flowers in full bloom and a nectar paradise for bees, butterflies and other insects. 

The reedbed itself hardly looks substantial or extensive enough to be suitable for this larger cousin of our familiar Reed Warbler, being narrow and inconsequential compared to the much larger reedbeds scattered around other parts of the lagoon. However the warbler has decided this is the spot for him and has set up territory here accordingly.

Great Reed Warblers are about a third larger than a Reed Warbler, bulkier and thickset, with more clumsy movements but possess a similar plumage of warm brown upperparts and creamy buff underparts.The throat is pure white, especially noticeable when swollen in song and compared to a Reed Warbler its head is larger in proportion to the body and more strikingly marked with a broad pale supercilium over and a darker line through each eye. Not a striking bird as such but its exceptionally strident song, and the sheer volume of a series of croaking, squeaking notes, make it unmistakeable and impossible to ignore.

I stationed myself opposite where the warbler's song was coming from, looking over the bramble hedge to the reeds just metres beyond and below. I could hear it plainly enough but where was it in the jumble of pale dead reed stems and emerging fresh green blades of reed? Eventually I found it on the far side of the reeds by the lagoon's calm blue waters, perched on a reed stem but very much obscured by other intervening reeds

To get a clear view of it and a decent image was not going to be easy if it remained partially concealed like this. However I had all day to wait if necessary and knew it would move position regularly through the reedbed. It was just a matter of being patient and hoping it would eventually choose to perch somewhere else which was more open. Two hours later and I was still hoping, having only achieved tantalising views of it in the reeds, always partially and frustratingly obscured. 

I was however still on my own with not another living soul anywhere to be seen on the reserve. It looked like it was me and the warbler to the finish.

The sun was now most definitely warming the land and shining on most of the reedbed and this brought about a  change in the warbler's behaviour. The increased warmth and sunlight seemed to embolden it and it showed definite signs of perching higher and more openly.

Through the first three hours it sang constantly, even when preening or chasing insects. It never stopped. A Cetti's Warbler was given short shrift as the Great Reed, espying it from its swaying perch on a reed stem, chased it out of the reedbed and into the hedge behind me, sending the Cetti's on its way with a volley of croaks, gurgles and explosive chattering. Satisfied the Cetti's had got the message it quickly returned to the reed bed and resumed its singing

The song is very, very loud and comes across as a series of hoarse guttural notes, delivered slightly rthymically. and at times  are an almost frog like croaking and at others a series of higher grating squeaks, both repeated over and over. Rarely silent, the song was to be an almost constant accompaniment as it moved through the reeds and there was no mistaking where it was, even when invisible, due to its ceaseless singing.When visible and in full song the rich orange colour of the inside of its wide open bill stood out as it moved its head from side to side.

Finally it began to show itself more  and now, at last, a few opportunities materialised to catch it fully or almost fully in the open. However there always seemed to be a reed head or reed stem to thwart my attempt at a decent image. 

In a way this was no bad thing as it retained my interest although at the same time trying my patience and equanimity to the very limit. Eventually it all came together for a few brief minutes.

That's photographing warblers for you, even ones as large as this magnificent Great Reed Warbler. 

Twenty five minutes drive further north is Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Potteric Carr Nature Reserve currently blessed with a pair of Black winged Stilts and four young. This is quite a notable event and as I was so close it made sense to go and have a look.

After a rather slower drive than anticipated up the A1 I made it to the reserve and set about the half hour walk to the far end of the reserve where the stilts were viewable from a hide overlooking a shallow flash of water.

I was not disappointed as both adults and their four young were visible, albeit a trifle distantly.The parents birds were very attentive, chasing off anything that came too close to their offspring. This included Little Egrets and an unfortunate Gadwall, with one or the other of the stilts flying at them, calling loudly.

To see these elegant waders with unfeasibly long and delicate pink legs was a nice and unanticipated ending to what had already been an enjoyable day. 

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