Sunday, 31 May 2020

Bun Bags a Blyth's

Absolute full marks to Kev today, for a top quality find and a much-deserved reward.  He has been visiting Beer Head every single day since early April (he came here for his daily exercise allowance during the strict lockdown) but has actually seen very little.  Far less than any other spring that's for sure, but he didn't give up.

Last week he stumbled upon a couple of late singing male Reed Warblers.  Then mid this morning he scored with a patch first - Blyth's Reed Warbler!

There's an interesting story though, and a great lesson to all birders within I think. Am sure I am right in saying that from the moment he stumbled upon it he was thinking Blyth's Reed Warbler over Marsh Warbler, and during my time with it (about 45 minutes) I was convinced it was Blyth's Reed on song so put the news out as such.  But then over the course of the afternoon, more and more individuals on site and over social media seemed to favour Marsh. To the extent that BirdGuides officially re-identified it as Marsh Warbler, I believe primarily based on some South African species it was apparently mimicking (Blyth's Reeds winter in India so shouldn't come across these species ever, Marsh Warblers winter in Africa).

No one had still really seen it properly.  I managed a two second view of the middle part of the bird (behind its eye to middle of the secondaries so missing the crucial elements!) but nowhere near enough to add any weight to the identification.

When I heard it this morning it was giving an often steadily-paced and structured song (not rushed like Marsh) with some chuntering, tacking and amazing Nightingale-esque fluty notes interspersed.  Have a listen to this short clip I recorded on the P900. Fairly classic Blyth's Reed I thought...

There was quite a lot of mimicry involved though and it did at times speed up.  For anyone who has a spare two and half minutes, here is some out of focus grass with the Blyth's Reed singing in the back ground. A much longer and varied clip than above...

Anyway as I said, after I had left and gone off to spend the day with the family, it then became much less of a certainty, and by the end of the afternoon I had several messages saying it was a Marsh Warbler.  I did however also have some still saying definitely a Blyth's Reed!  I have been involved with many identification debates in the past where there's been if's and but's with opposite sides disagreeing - but never have I been in one where both sides were claiming clinching features (albeit only in the song) and each being so confident in their respective conclusions.  Any bird that creates this much uncertainty amongst experienced folk is clearly a tricky/a-typical individual.

Despite my Blyth's certainty at first all the debate made me wobble, especially around mid-afternoon after hearing more sound clips of the bird on social media and reading others' opinion. I virtually convinced myself we had all been fooled by a Marsh Warbler in sub-song and was preparing to hold my hands up - to the extent I had drafted the apologetic blog post out in my head.  I even began feeling guilty for all the birders who had trekked over on my duff gen. Blyth's Reed is a proper good bird for Devon, although Lundy have had a couple I believe only a recent autumn Berry Head bird (4th-6th Oct 2016, thanks for the correction Mike) has been available for the current county birding crowd.  Chris T did find one on the East Devon Commons last week, but it didn't hang around long enough for others to see. You can read his blog post about it here.

But then...

Tonight, although I couldn't get back up there, several of the local birders did and it showed much better. Revealing itself for sure as a Blyth's Reed Warbler.  Thanks to Kevin for allowing me to use his photo, which I must add was taken in strong evening sunlight making it appear a warmer shade of brown than it actually was...

(c) Kevin Hale

Short-winged with evenly spaced primary tips which aren't broad and pale-tipped.  In other photos head shape perfect too with a spiky bill, and overall posture and colour supports Blyth's too.  James Mc heard it give a very harsh and sylvia-like tek earlier as well which was handy.

This whole episode was such a good reminder that this birding lark isn't always straight forward, even on the occasions you think it is. Especially the case when it comes to these skulky little brown ones.  I do love birds like this though, even if they can be highly frustrating at times!

Thanks everyone for all your comments and thoughts today, and although I didn't see any visitors it was good to catch up with many of you over the phone.

Thanks again and well done Kev. The third rarest bird to be found on Beer Head in terms of UK records, and gladly another rare warbler which I always think we should do better for here considering the habitat and location. 


  1. Great write up Steve - but just to be correct my Berry Head Blyth's Reed was present for 3 days 4th-6th Oct - it generally showed well and luckily I identified it on stucture & plumage. The Lesser Whitethroat like 'tack' call was heard regularly too.
    Berry Head has been very quiet on my visits since the 'lockdown' ended - a spring to be forgotten over here!

    1. Hi Mike. I really appreciate the time to post, and have edited the post. I had it in my head it was a one-dayer for some reason, but I'd probably confusing it with another of your superb Berry Head finds.

      Obviously within the last 18 hours have done a lot of research on Blyth's vocalisation. Many moons ago an elusive acro was heard to 'tac' at Spurn late in an autumn, but we all lost interest in it when it gave a Reed-like churr still without showing - from what I have recently read that was a mistake as they can indeed make a similar sound! Ooops.

      Yes overall it hasn't been a good spring at all, for waders, sea birds, grounded spring migrants or vis mig. Am putting it all down to the glorious sunny weather, and hopefully not the lack of birds passing through.

      Wishing you all the best as always,


  2. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for sharing this story and especially for the lovely recordings! I’m from Sri Lanka and while I’ve seen the Blyth’s Reed Warbler a couple of times, I’ve never heard it say any more than its wintering “tack”.

    1. Hi Sadini, thanks so much for taking the time to comment from Sri Lanka! We consider ourselves so lucky to have one visit us, even if just for the one day. The song was amazing though - really wonderful to hear. Hope you get to experience it one day.

      Best wishes, Steve