Thursday 14 September 2023

Upper Beeding Aquatic Warbler

Aquatic Warbler is one of those species that I assumed I would never get to see. Back in the day they used to be annual visitors to the UK and a trip down to Marazion in Cornwall in early autumn would usually find one. Sadly this species is in catastrophic decline globally and they are now real rarities in this country. When they do turn up it's usually just "trapped and ringed" and never seen again. So when one was found on Sunday early afternoon in a rather non-descript inland location in Sussex, I assumed that it too would vanish never to be seen again. However, it was seen regularly all afternoon and into dusk. That many sightings in itself was unusual and piqued my interest. However, having done so much driving recently I was too tired to contemplate a trip on Monday even if it was still around. So I watched with interest as it was seen all day the next day. Again this was almost unheard of for an Aquatic Warbler at least in my time of birding. By Monday evening I felt recovered enough to contemplate a trip on Tuesday morning on news. PL (of Ramblings and Scribblings blog fame) messaged me to see if I was going and wanted to join forces. He and I often need the same things and have similar constraints on how far we are prepared to travel so we often find ourselves at the same twitches. So we agreed to go "on news" the next day.

The next morning I was up far too early in anticipation of our trip. A bit of early messaging established that EU (of the Black Audio Birding blog) was also going so we all agreed to go together. EU got an early tip off from a WhatsApp group that the bird was still there before it hit the news services so we all set off for our rendezvous at a layby near the Oxford M40 services. Once we had all assembled, we set of in the Gnome-mobile for Sussex, a couple of hours away according to the Sat Nav. En route EU got more information from the WhatsApp group that the bird was being seen from time to time so it was with some optimism that we struggled our way around the M25 before heading down the M23 to deepest, darkest Sussex and our target of Upper Beeding. In the end the journey was uneventful and we arrived sometime after 10:30 a.m., parked up in one of the neighbouring roads and headed out on the footpath past the church to the river and then northwards along the bank to the twitch area.

We arrived to find a bunch of birders all strung out along a surprisingly long stretch of the river, all looking rather disconsolate. As we walked along the line I would ask them about the bird though it seemed that it had not been seen for about an hour. Towards the end of the line, someone said that "it was last seen in this general area". At last, some more useful information! We set ourselves up in this spot and started to scan the area. We were all watching from a rather narrow footpath, looking down on some scrub area that sloped down to the tidal River Adur. The habitat was long grass with some dead Umbellifers and Dock leaves and a few other bits and bobs. Of course, it was all rather dense vegetation with plenty of places for a small Acro to hide. We'd been there no more than a few minutes when a bird flew into a clump of plants. However it flew in rather high with a bouncy flight and when I lifted my bins it turned out to be a Reed Bunting. Just at that moment something else flew low across the bank into a tall clump of grass near where I had been looking. The flight jizz and the warm honey-brown tones gave it away as the target and I got a good enough view of it before it slipped deeper into the cover to be able to call it out to the rest of the birders there. They all duly converged on the area and a tense 20 minutes followed of watching this area and waiting. Finally it flew out again and down the bank though I happened to miss this. 


The Aquatic Warbler, the above two photos courtesy of Nick Truby

After this initial sighting the bird was much more cooperative and it was possible to track it as it skulked about from one location to another. It would regularly show with at least some flight views and could often be picked out in the vegetation if you happened to be at the right viewing angle. It would occasionally make it's "tack" call so that one could keep track of it. In general, there was no possibility of a photo so instead I just spent my time watching it and accumulating some reasonable views over the period of an hour or so. At one point it flew across the river and even sat still in one spot for long enough for me to attempt a record shot. In general, it would occasionally show itself reasonably well for a few seconds before slipping off again.

My one record shot of the bird across the river

As I mentioned at the beginning, Aquatic Warbler is in serious decline and these days most of the breeding population is confined to eastern Poland and southern Belarus with an estimated population of between 11 and 15 thousand birds. It was only recently that their over-wintering region was discovered in Senegal. They have a preference for short (12inch) wet sedge beds though habitat loss through land drainage has resulted in a serious decline to the point where they are the only internationally threatened passerine in mainland Europe.

The Aquatic Warbler, courtesy of Joe Tobias

After a while it all went quiet and the bird wasn't seen for quite a while. More people left and at about 1pm we too decided that we'd had our fill and headed back along the river to the car. After a quick stop off for some food for EU we headed back, guided along the A24 by the Sat Nav due to some accidents on the M25. We arrived back at the layby in reasonable time and all went out separate ways. It had been a very satisfactory twitch, and this elusive species, which I thought I would never get, was finally on my list.

Looking back on the remaining twitchers as we were leaving

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