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Only a bloomin' River Warbler in Somerset!

Updated: Jun 7

At about 4.30pm on the 4th June 2021, I was scrolling Twitter and saw a tweet from Cliff Smith that caught my eye. Apparently, there was a River Warbler singing away at RSPB Ham Wall! It had been found by David Hughes, and Cliff was now at the site, enjoying great views.

Now I knew very little about this species, so had a quick Google. I already knew it had to be an unusual bird for the UK to have caught Cliffs attention, but I quickly learnt that it was in fact a 'mega', a birding term meaning 'very rare indeed'!

The last River Warbler to have been seen on the UK mainland was over 10 years ago!

It had never been seen in Somerset before!

Now, in general, I don't 'do' crowds of people, and I rarely partake in a 'twitch', but this was so close to where I live on the Somerset Levels, and being a Friday, the motorways were a car-park, so I figured maybe I could get there before the influx of birders arrived!

I grabbed my camera and left the house within 5 minutes of reading Cliff's tweet. Tea would have to wait!

Considering it's only a 10 minute drive to Ham Wall, I did well to get stuck behind everything imaginable! A tractor on the main road, 2 horse riders down a country lane and a recycling lorry in the village of Ashcott, completely blocking the road whilst the workmen went from house to house collecting the recyclables!

I finally arrived at Ham Wall and was relieved to see the car-park was only half full!

I made my way to the area that the bird had been reported, and soon saw a group of birders with cameras and telescopes pointing in the direction of one of the many reedbeds at the reserve. I few familiar faces were in attendance, such as Cliff, Julian Thomas & Gary Boiler, and I met a couple of people who knew me from Twitter.

Within a few minutes of being there, the bird showed on a some branches that were on the ground on the edge of the reeds, and started singing, a beautiful prolonged reeling sound, unlike anything I'd ever heard before! It was a bit larger than the numerous Reed Warblers it was sharing the reeds with, and had some lovely subtle stripes/patterns on its chest and the underneath of its tail.

After singing for a good 2 or 3 minutes, it flew a short distance and disappeared low down in the reeds again. What a bird! Chatting to some of the birders who had more knowledge of rare birds than I do, I learnt that River Warblers spend much of their time hidden on the ground, deep within reedbeds. The fact that this one was being so obliging and 'showy' was remarkable. It was still quite distant for good photos, especially for someone who handholds and uses a relatively cheap third party zoom lens like I do. There were guys there with tripods with expensive cameras attached and zoom lenses costing up to £15,000 and the size of small cars!

The harsh side-light of the sun didn't help with photography either, and heat-haze was also a problem. So I returned the following day when the conditions were cloudier, and managed this photo of the little feathered superstar, which considering the distance and limitations of my kit, I was pretty pleased with. :)

At the time of writing, early Sunday evening, the River Warbler was still present and delighting the people arriving from all over the country to see it.

The 2nd rarest bird I'd ever seen, the first being a Hudsonian Godwit just over the road at Shapwick Heath, 6 years previously. The River Warbler was my favourite though, every inch a star, holding court on stage in front of hundreds of fans who'd travelled from all over the country to see it. Magic!




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