Marsh Warbler: here yesterday, gone today

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Wednesday, June 1, 1988

A quick trip out from my wife’s parents’ house this time. They live on the western edges of Birmingham, but I am off to see a speciality in a nearby area, namely Marsh Warbler. I find the site, next to a picturesque little humpback road bridge, and park the car. Then I set off along the riverbank, towards a brick railway bridge. Look for the orange arrows:

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As I walk along, there are Sedge Warblers, exploding indignantly at me from riverside clumps of vegetation.

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There are the odd few Reed Warblers, just to get me excited, but I am hopeful that Marsh Warbler will look completely different from its closely related congener.  It’s an unfamiliar and interesting landscape for me, with pollarded willows and soaking wet pastures, full of ferocious Friesian cattle, plotting to charge and trample me to death as soon as my back is turned. When I get to the railway bridge, there is already another birdwatcher looking for Marsh Warblers:

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After about ten minutes or so, a bird appears low down in the vegetation on the opposite bank of the slowly flowing river, just above the waterline. It looks good to me for Marsh Warbler, despite the fact that at no point does it actually sing. Its shade of brown has an appropriate grey tinge and its underparts are whiter than white with no hint of buff.

It has a smooth, flat head, without a crest of any kind. Its legs are a nice pale colour, as it reappears every ten minutes or so at roughly the same place. The bird is obviously doing a circuit around the nettles and the Rosebay Willow Herb, feeding as it goes. Perhaps it has just this minute arrived from Africa, and it’s getting its breath back before it bursts into its imitations of 93 different bird songs, and seven types of lorry reversing signals. Anyway, I agree with the other birdwatcher that this is a Marsh warbler. Then we both pack up and go home, plodding off down the riverside path. There aren’t any reasons to believe that the bird is not what it is supposed to be. Not a single feature contradicts Marsh Warbler as a verdict. Besides, most important of all, it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Nowadays, the Marsh Warbler, as far as I know, no longer breeds in this exact area. There are, and there have been, various breeding records from Kent and Suffolk, among many others, but I no longer know of any reliable site for these birds. I know that I have definitely seen a Marsh Warbler, an individual that was seen by many, many others, who all agreed with the identification…alas! It was on the Isles of Scilly, in bracken in a rocky, overgrown field. Given the habitat and the time of year, there were many, many people who thought that it must be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Indeed, there were those who wanted it to be God knows what sort of Warbler from beyond not just Lake Baikal, but Kamchatka itself.

The lone birdwatcher I met at Eckington was a young woman. She still remains the only young woman I have ever seen in a twitching situation. Older women will readily, even eagerly, go on coach trips with the RSPB or the Nottinghamshire Birdwatchers but young women have many and better things to do in my experience. Birdwatching has always  been equally short of ethnic minorities. I know now that they exist in British ornithology, but in my twitching days, I never saw a black birdwatcher. I only ever came across one young Asian man, as we all embarked on the Scillonian for one of the old Pelagics, a trip out into the South West Approaches to find Black-browed Albatross and Sea Serpent. But that, as they say, is another story.



Filed under Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

12 responses to “Marsh Warbler: here yesterday, gone today

    • A way of describing bird watchers, commonly used in this country, in fact I did have in my own next post but took it out!

      • So if one goes bird watching they are “twitching”, and therefore, they are a “twitcher”. In the U.S., it might be suggested that they seek medical assistance. Ah, the wonder of language.

      • That’s about right. It’s an odd word and I don’t know its origins but it’s an interesting one! The English language is so diverse!

      • I don’t know the origin of twitcher” for definite, but the story goes… the late 1950s and 1960s, two very keen twitchers used to go everywhere on a motorbike. The passenger couldn’t move for long periods of time as he clung on for dear live. He would often be freezing cold, and he was supposedly a cigarette smoker. The problem was that because of the speed of the bike, he couldn’t light a cigarette, so presumably he started to suffer withdrawal symptoms. When they arrived on site, the problems he had had made him physically twitch and shake for five minutes or so as soon as he got off the motorbike…he was cold, stiff, dying for a cigarette and above all, nervous about seeing the bird. It happened so often that his companion always used to tell people that their plan that weekend, for example, was not to go birdwatching, but instead, they were going for a twitch. And of course, the name stuck. There are other stories about the origin of the word ,but that’s the one that deserves to be true!

      • What a fabulous tale! I shall remember that one!

      • There are quite a lot of twitchers in the USA despite the huge distances involved. Apparently, the best place to go to see rare birds on American soil is the Aleutian Islands, especially one called Attu. I am pretty sure that that island has cropped up several times in posts about the Second World War. As regards medical assistance, I think you are absolutely right. It can be quite an obsessional hobby. I was fairly hooked, but I was only a beginner compared to the hard core. People regularly come to Britain from Finland but the record is held by the few twitchers who went from, I think, London, to see a rare duck in Tokyo.

      • To be absolutely strict, a twitcher is somebody who goes to try and see a rare bird once he has found out about it, usually through his phone or the internet. It would be a bird not native to Britain, and, once he has seen it, it becomes one more “tick” on his life total of species. In Britain, 400 species used to be the total people aimed at, but now it is 500 because many more species have been found in recent years. The birds are always way off course, and often are from the USA. I am no longer a twitcher, but when I was, I saw more than 50 different American species over here in Britain. The best one was American Robin, a very common bird in the States, I believe! It was in Grimsby in an industrial estate several years ago, and the burger van was in attendance, making a fair amount of cash in late December!

      • Well I never knew that. I incorrectly, assumed all bird watchers were ‘twitchers’! I know of the Robin a friend of mine in the States was surprised to see that ours was not the same as theirs and vice versa. We truly do live and learn!

  1. Fascinating. Was it the Marsh Warbler mentioned in ‘The Great Escape’ with that epic lineup? There are many beautiful birds in this country and I must say my ignorance of them is appalling. Posts like this really bring them to life and help to understand them a little better without going overboard.

    • I think it was the Masked Shrike in the Great Escape, but I’m not 100% sure. The first one in Britain was found in eastern Scotland and it was a major “twitch” at the time. A bird never seen before in Britain like that bird was, can easily attract a lot of people if motorway access is easy, it’s not too far from London, the bird is easy to see and it’s on view without having to wait too long to see it. That can have great benefits for local traders, some of whom will arrive with their mobile burger vans and make a killing, but only as long as the bird is there!

      • I think that one was certainly mentioned in fact I think that’s the one they drew after he had whistled the Warbler’s tune again I’m not sure. I can’t imagine birds hanging around long enough for the burger brigade but if its nesting I suppose, that would be quite a while! All fascinating stuff!

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