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