Monday, 1 June 2020

Blyth's Reed Warbler

On my old Seaton Area patch, Kev Hale has been conscientiously plugging away at Beer Head all spring, with little reward. Yesterday though, it paid off big time. Mid-morning, Kev posted a short video clip on the Patch WhatsApp group. An invisible bird singing away merrily, and a 'most likely Blyth's' label...

In a UK context, it is probably fair to say that Reed Warbler, Marsh Warbler and Blyth's Reed Warbler comprise one of the trickiest sets of confusing Little Brown Jobs going. In autumn, especially so. However, a spring bird in song shouldn't present too much of a challenge, should it? Even if you can't see the bird, the song surely is diagnostic...isn't it? Well, in answer to those questions, see Steve Waite's excellent post about the whole affair here.

Just before midday I was finally in a position to do something about the gen I'd received, and at this stage the bird was still an almost-certain Blyth's Reed Warbler. I'm not a great twitcher, but was strong with this one. First off, Blyth's would be a lifer. Second, it sounded like I might learn something useful. Third, views had thus far been subliminal, and clearly the bird was not giving itself up easily, so there was the tempting appeal of a challenge. Fourth, it was on Beer Head, and Beer Head is still one of my favourite birding spots of all time. So that was four really good reasons to crack. And I'm not made of stone...

Upon arrival I met Kev heading off for lunch. News was not great. Yes, the bird was still there, and still singing, but opinions on its ID were now divided. A strong and knowledgable contingent believed the song to be consistent with Marsh Warbler, not Blyth's Reed. Ah. Right. Still, Marsh Warbler would be a brilliant local bird, a brilliant county bird even. And it still had not been seen well, or photographed. So I pressed on, slightly less excited, but keen to get involved even so.

There were four birders present, and a few more joined us. It was great to catch up with some I hadn't seen in a while. I got about 15 minutes of decent-ish recording and barely a glimpse of the bird, let alone a photo. Nevertheless, you could hear it, you could hear it very clearly. And some of us (me included) were swayed into joining the Marsh Warbler camp. But all too soon it went quiet, evidently shutting down in the afternoon heat. I decided to throw in the towel also, and come back in the evening.

Back home I played my recording, and compared it to umpteen Marsh and Blyth's Reed Warblers on Xeno Canto. And it wasn't long before I was back in the Blyth's camp.

Fast-forward to 18:33, and the view as I emerge from the Beer Head sheepwalk and head for the vast crowd of twitchers...

There might be more delightful spots to sit on the grass and wait for a bird to perform, but not many.

At this stage the bird was still definitely a Marsh Warbler and definitely a Blyth's Reed, depending which trench you had helped dig. I now felt pretty sure it was a Blyth's, but beyond photos and recordings my experience of the species is nil. I was here to learn, and hopefully to collect evidence. The bird was already singing again, so I switched on my recorder and laid it on the ground in front of me.

The sun was now full on the hedge in which the bird skulked. Perfect. If it showed, the light would be terrific for photos.

Well, it did show. Several times. Very, very, very briefly. Very, very, very minimally. And very, very, very annoyingly. But I was absolutely determined to photograph this thing if at all possible, and got my first chance at 18:57. I managed two bursts, but the results were dismal. Next chance, 19:14. One burst, and I got the wing, the actual wing! Primaries, secondaries, tertials, the lot! Wow!! Here you go, this is what I was so excited about...

Yep, I was really chuffed with these. Birding's a funny game, isn't it?

These photos were enough to reinforce my belief that the bird was a Blyth's Reed and not a Marsh Warbler. But could I say so unequivocally? And pehaps more importantly, could I say why? Well, I'll save that for another post...

Not long after this, the bird went quiet. Which surprised me. I was expecting it to get going full throttle as the evening wore one, but it did the opposite. The five of us sat there for ages as the shadows got longer and longer, and there was neither sight nor sound. I packed away my recorder, my camera, and assumed that was that. Then, out of the blue, there it was, in full view at the base of the hedge, cavorting shamelessly. On the deck in fact, doing the full 'banana' posture and everything, calling loudly, fully aware that cameras had been powered down and stowed. By the time I'd fumbled mine back out it was up in the hedge again and partially hidden, but three quick bursts between 20:11 and 20:12 gave me these...

All the photos have been edited so as to remove some of the excessive 'warmth' imparted by the evening sun. Hopefully they more accurately represent the bird's true appearance. Anyway, it seemed somehow appropriate that this mega-skulker had made us wait until virtually last knockings before giving us a load of clinching material. And clinching it was I think. But yes, I'll milk at least one more post out of this absolute gem of a bird. One of the most enjoyable ID challenges I've ever been involved with, and a fantastic way to end the spring.

And here is 3 minutes of the superb Beer Head Blyth's to close with... 


  1. Hello Gavin,
    That was a very interesting and exciting story and the pictures you took were very clear and beautiful. And yeah, birdwatching has a lot of quirks!
    Greetings from Sri Lanka!

  2. Oh, the struggle is real with these annoying Little Brown Jobs. But in the end it’s satisfying indeed. Love your story, and your painstaking patience is admirable!

  3. Hello Janitha and Sadini, and thank you both for taking the trouble to comment on here. I'm pretty sure this blog has never received a comment from Sri Lanka before! I have just visited your own blogs and discovered you are sisters, so welcome, both of you, to the slightly weird world of British birding. 😊

    1. Hello Gavin,
      We hope to visit Britain for a good long wildlife trip sometime in our lives - been wanting to ever since we watched Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries. Thanks for visiting our blogs!