Monday 25 May 2020

Singing Blyth's Reed Warbler!

During the late afternoon of Saturday 23rd May, Helen and I headed out for a walk to the East Devon Commons. As always, the walk had a hidden birding agenda with ever optimistic thoughts of Red-footed Falcon possibilities, following the current UK influx. Little did I know just how things were to turn out!

About halfway round the walk, taking one of the many narrow Devon tracks that we have been exploring during lockdown, an odd bird song had us both stop and listen. It was coming intermittently from the hedge bank and I was confused by the number of fluty notes interspersed with harsh scolding notes. I didn't have my phone with me, so asked Helen to try and get a recording on her phone. At this point the bird appeared in a holly tree very briefly and gave me enough of a view to see it was an Acrocephalus warbler. Though very odd habitat for a Reed Warbler, I have seen migrants in a number of strange places, but it was the song that really bothered me! Despite the bird singing in a somewhat subdued way, the phrases it was coming out with were way too fluty for just a normal European Reed Warbler. The song didn't seem manic enough for a Marsh Warbler but surely Blyth's Reed Warbler was a ridiculous possibility? I knew I had to get a better recording as the more I thought about it the more I pondered Blyth's Reed Warbler, though my only memory of a singing bird was from a trip to Finland some years ago. Certainly a species more arboreal than other Acros.

So the walk was cut short and we headed home. At this point I have to say how lucky I am to have Helen as my partner! She already knew our walk was over and totally understood that I now had the bit between my teeth to get to the bottom of the identification! To be fair, she too was intrigued by the song. 

Once back at home, I grabbed my sound recording gear and headed back to the site. It was still very windy, not ideal for sound recording and I was under pressure to be home for a Zoom chat with the family that I could not miss! Therefore, I was relieved to hear the bird still singing in the hedge bank and amazingly it actually sang continuously for around 2 -3 minutes, giving the best song I had heard. It then went quiet again! In the rush I forgot my headphones and I just had to hope the microphone was pointing at the correct spot! By now it was around 5pm and I had to leave.

After finishing various important family commitments I did some brief comparisons with the song and I felt sure it must be a Blyth's Reed Warbler, though it still seemed a ridiculous claim, particularly as I had only seen the bird so briefly! I was therefore keen to at least see the bird better before putting any news out and to see if there was a better place to view from - the narrow lane was certainly not great for social distancing! I was also a little concerned my sound recording was distorted by wind, so I returned at about 8pm. It was still very windy but I was hoping the bird would still be singing as the species is known to sing during the night, but all was quiet. Then, just as I was about to leave, at 9pm the bird appeared in the holly tree. It was in silhouette but I managed to get some very dark record shots! More importantly, the bird called about 10 times giving a fairly soft "teck" that I managed to record on my phone and reminded me of birds I have heard on their wintering grounds in Sri Lanka.

The following morning I returned at 05.30hrs and watched and listened until 10am with no luck. I was disappointed that the warbler had not stayed so I could share this exciting bird for Devon with other birders. So much so, I returned again in the afternoon for three hours and again in the evening, but sadly it seemed the bird had moved on. 

I put the news out on Twitter and the local WhatsApp group. Despite the narrow lane and restricted viewing being very poor for social distancing, I felt confident that I could have arranged access to the adjacent private field to view the hedge where the bird had been frequenting.

Assuming the bird is accepted, it will be only the fourth record for Devon and the first ever spring record. 
Previous Devon records:
Lundy 3rd October 2013 and 25th October 2016 
Berry Head 4th-6th October 2016 - See Here

The irony of this totally unexpected find for me is that due to the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, like many other birders, I have been exploring local footpaths that I wouldn't ordinarily visit and so the bird would have gone undiscovered. Secondly, if I hadn't recently joined the Nocmig world, I wouldn't have my sound recording equipment, so essential to confirming the identification! Needless to say, the sound recording gear is always with me now and I now wonder how I survived without it!

It has certainly been an incredible week for me with the recent excitement of the patch Bee-eaters (See Here). If ever there was motivation for birders to get out locally and explore, this is it, as you just never know what is around the next Devon corner..............

I would like to say particular thanks to my Estonian friend and Bird Guide, Tarvo Valker who hears many Blyth's Reed Warblers in his home country. I was very pleased to hear he considered the recording to "fit BRW perfectly", though he did comment that the habitat, where Helen and I found the bird, was far from ideal! I also must mention friends Matt KnottPeter Alfrey and Darryl Spittle who had to deal with my over excitement from various phone calls!
The Devon lane where we found the Blyth's Reed Warbler

The Devon lane where we found the Blyth's Reed Warbler and the Holly tree

The location of the BRW - East of East Budleigh Common
Distance from coast approx 2 miles

You can hear the measured rhythm of a Reed Warbler but with diagnostic repeated fluty whistles interspersed with 
clicks and tecks. The recording was not too bad despite the distortion of the wind (mostly filtered out), though I 
wish I had used my "dead cat" wind diffuser! The FULL VERSION can be heard below. 
Sound quality improves towards the end of the recording.

Blyth's Reed Warbler in Holly Tree at 9pm

Blyth's Reed Warbler in Holly Tree at 9pm

Blyth's Reed Warbler in Holly Tree at 9pm - Though not the best photo, I think it still shows the short-winged appearance.
You can hear the "teck" call which it gave at around 9pm

THE Hedgerow!


  1. That is such a non-rare looking site - let alone a blyth's reed looking site - that this is just down right crazy! How many one day megas like this are missed whilst we all flog the coast and see mostly bugger all. Superb work.

    1. I have been feeling a little delirious since to be honest Steve! It just shows what is out there doesn't it! Thanks for your comment Steve.

  2. As I said on twitter Chris - just remarkable and well done! All birders have birds in mind that we might find at a given site or even a bit of habitat, thank goodness birding is not that predictable... A Blyth's Reed Warbler in a holly bush, next to woodland and farmland in Devon and in spring would have been about as far away from any prediction as you could have got! The video capturing the call, the sound recording of song and even photos in near darkness show your thoroughness in securing the record of a tricky and rare Devon bird.

    1. I think you have very nicely summed it up Mike! It is very nice to get such praise on the documenting process from a man who has done it many times! After seeing your Berry Head bird, never did I think I'd find my own just under 2 miles walk from home! Thanks again Mike.