Blyth’s Reed Warbler

in Spring!

by Andy Cook,

photos and comment by Martin G and Brydon T.

“I had just completed the last field on a voluntary RSPB wader survey on my neighbour’s croft…

Blyth's Reed Warbler b Fetlar May 2013Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Everland, Fetlar, 29th May 2013, by Martin Garner

Having just walked up a sheltered burn to the gate at the top as it passes a dry stone dyke I immediately saw an unstreaked Acro (Acrocephalus warbler) jumping off the Dyke and onto a fence line which runs parallel, about 15 feet away.
Reed Warbler sprung to mind, but it didn’t look right so I gave it a grilling with my bins.
My first thoughts were how greyish brown the upper parts were contrasting with particularly  pale looking the underparts, especially the rear flanks and under tail coverts.

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The jizz of the bird looked too clean for Reed Warbler. The primary projection seemed very short and stubby , legs pale pinkish and it kept adopting the ‘banana pose’ by keeping it’s tail up while actively feeding between the fence and the dyke.

Blyth's Reed Warbler Fetlar May 2013Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Everland, Fetlar, 29th May 2013, by Martin Garner

I had previous experience of Blyth’s Reed once before in Norfolk about 3 -4 years ago, and I was extracting these above features from my mind as I was watching the bird at close range. Everything seemed to fit, and I was happy I had enough apart from a photo.
As I was surveying, I didn’t carry any camera gear around with me, It was a 20 min return trip to my house to pick it up but I felt I needed proof to convince myself 100%.
I rushed home, grabbed my camera, mobile, field guide and phone directory !

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As I left the house I flicked to the page of unstreaked warblers. The pale strong super in front of the eye was a feature I forgot about but was one I noticed on my bird, thus giving it a full suite of characters. I rang Malcie Smith, the RSPB warden on the island who was also just completing survey work, and told him to get over to Everland ASAP!

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As a long shot, I also phoned Brydon Thomason of Shetland Nature to see if he was on the island. Luckily he was, and better still, about 10 mins away at Funzie. He was co-leading a tour with Martin Garner.

Blyth's Reed Warbler g Fetlar May 2013Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Everland, Fetlar, 29th May 2013, by Martin Garner
I gave them directions where the bird was when I left it and I was ahead of them trying to relocate the bird when I saw them pull up. Nothing was seen for what seemed ages, but then I took sight of my bird about 100 yds further on along the stone dyke. I was watching it through bins as Martin was the first to approach.

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My heart sank as it was feeding without it’s tail cocked unlike before, but I was so relieved that Martin got it in scope and confirmed 100 % Blyth’s Reed by shouting to the rest of the group who were making their way across to the dyke.

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It was in the bag, not my rarest find, but probably the trickiest id. to call in the field with only my memory to rely on.
The bird continued to feed and was posing happily for the assembled snappers, and my thanks go to Brydon for obtaining some superb images of the bird. My photo’s would have passed as a record for the submission, but under the circumstances, my hands were now starting to shake !
At no point did the bird call, but whilst watching it, I did hear a sound coming from Martin sounding not unlike a bittern…”

BLths Reed bOOMAndy Cook (3rd from right) and our Shetland Nature group in highly appropriate celebration mode! The bird was left feeding along a dry stone wall (which is just about visible in the distant back ground). Everland, Fetlar

BT DSC_3365_Blyths reed_spring (2) BTBlyth’s Reed Warbler, Everland, Fetlar, 29th May 2013, by Brydon Thomason

With nearly 140 records in Britain, it’s still a challenging ‘birders bird’ when it comes to identification. An annual autumn flurry of birds is expected however in spring it is a whole lot rarer. This bird is around about the 7th/8th record ever for May in Britain. I (MG) was fortunate to see the first multi-observered Blyth’s Reed n Britain via hitchhiking (don’t do that nowadays!) from the West Midlands to Spurn Point on 28th May 1984! 

That bird appeared in this British Birds Mystery Photo

Blyth’s Reed Warbler is a species that keeps on being the cause of celebration. One of the first finds on our first Shetland Nature autumn birding holiday was:

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a Blyth’s Reed Warbler on (drum roll)… Fetlar! Written up here.

 

Blyth's Reed Warbler h Fetlar May 2013.Blyth's Reed Warbler i Fetlar May 2013Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Everland, Fetlar, 29th May 2013, by Martin Garner

Besides the overall impression of a long looking acro with greyish wash to upperparts (Eastern Olivaceous might spring to mind), a head pattern rather particular to Blyth’s Reed (hope you can see it), the eye has to fall to the end point of the wing. On this bird it was helpfully a rather short primary projection with a whole 3 emarginated outer primaires (can be 2 on Blyth’s Reed, normally only 1 emargination on Marsh and Reed). It’s not that difficult even if you don’t read each feather to see how the multiple emarginations which are also longer create an obviouly different looking ‘squeezed’ wingtip when compared with the Marsh Warbler below:

Marsh and Reed Warblers

…comparing

Marsh Warbler b Quendale spring 2013

Marsh Warbler c Quendale spring 2013Marsh Warbler (above 2) , Quendale, 29th May 2013, by Martin Garner. This was one we found at Quendale on 3rd June. Indeed it was a fab spring for experiencing and sharpening acrocephalus ID skills. Ironically, the rarest of the 3 was this bird below at Skaw, Unst.

Reed Warbler b Skaw, Unst May 2013

Reed Warbler c Skaw, Unst May 2013Eurasian Reed Warbler, Skaw Unst. In company with a Marsh Warbler it was originally identified as that species. The plumage tones, subdued face pattern and slightly shorter primary projection, however point the way. It did burst into a wee bit of song as I watched it too (which does help!)