Mrs Caley and I make an annual pilgrimage to Cornwall in October in the hope of seeing some rare warblers amongst other good birds. One of the sought after species is the barred warbler, a typically skulking warbler which tends to stay well hidden in bushes and shrubs and can be difficult to observe. That's if you can find one in the first place! In over 15 years of visiting Cornwall we've yet to encounter one there and indeed have only ever once had the chance to twitch one there which we failed to see. In fact I had only ever seen the one and that was in Aberdeen way back in September 2008 and Mrs Caley failed to connect with that bird since it was very tricky to pin down. So, when a first winter barred warbler was discovered in the small visitor centre garden at Titchfield Haven, we just had to get down there and see it! Apparently the bird had been showing really well feeding in a cotoneaster bush and amazing views were being had.
We had only been to Titchfield Haven once before, at the end of January 1999. On that day, according to my notes, we saw a dartford warbler and slavonian grebe as well as seeing our first ever hawfinches later in the day. Today though was to be all about the barred warbler.
Neither of us could remember much about the reserve except that it was on the shores of the Solent and looked out towards the Isle of Wight. I could vaguely recollect parking up on a gravel area by the water and could remember an amusing (well I think so anyway) observation by a passing dog walker at the time. Short story; we've parked up and this lady comes by and says "that's an interesting number plate on your car". Our license plate ended with WNK so I asked "do you think so?" knowing what might be coming since I'd had the same thoughts myself. "Yes" she replied, "if you add a letter to it you get", wait for it, "WINK". Phew! Comforting to know that the good folk of the Solent are not as crude as me! Although I still think she was thinking of the other version, knowing what most folks preconceived ideas of birders really are!
Anyway, the gravelled area has been replaced by posh tarmac and a sturdy sea wall, and after managing to escape with no friendly comments or otherwise from the locals, we made our way into the garden. We had already encountered Oxon birders Badger, Andy, Terry and Jim who had also made the trip for the bird. We asked a couple of birders if they had seen the barred warbler yet but they pointed us straight to a fabulous firecrest which was flitting around a small sueda bush right next to the path. It was moving quickly though and I was still a bit dozy so failed to get any images until it had flown into denser shrubbery and then the it was a bit too dark to get a sharp photo. But a fine start to the day and we'd only been on site a minute!
Then Terry motioned to us that the barred warbler was showing. And wasn't it just! Perched up in an ivy covered tree, spotlit by string sunshine, it just couldn't be missed. Two minutes in and we'd seen two fabulous birds. Twitching can be easy sometimes.
This was a bird that wasn't doing what it says on the tin, well what it says in the guide books anyway. Those books tell you that barred warblers are large and heavy (tick), tend to move slowly or stay still for long periods (tick), usually in thick scrub (NOT!). As the photos below will testify this bird was as bold as brass.
All the sunbathing was getting too much for it and at one point the bird yawned lazily and had a scratch so at least we knew it was alive!
After sunning itself for 15 minutes or so the barred warbler suddenly exploded into action and flew all of 6 feet across a pathway to the cotoneaster bush whereupon it gobbled down a couple of berries before resuming its position in the tree opposite. Where it sat still for another 10 minutes. I, along with the fellow assembled, was not expecting that. The barred warbler did eventually fly off into neighbouring bushes and disappeared but returned an hour or so later and repeated the same routine.
This barred warbler is a first winter so is a pale coloured bird with only feint barring mainly to the under tail area and very feint wing bars. It had a heavy bill and a robust structure and superficially resembled a wryneck in many aspects particularly when twisting its head around. The beady dark centred eye was very prominent. When the bird was feeding in the cotoneaster bush and out of the strong sunlight the colouration appeared much greyer, possibly indicating a first winter male bird.
We spent a good hour and a half admiring it and wondered if we'd ever be so fortunate to see one so well again and also whether we'd ever find our own, now we knew what to look for. To celebrate a life tick for Mrs Caley we indulged in a fine hot chocolate drink and a breakfast sandwich at the tea rooms and decided what to do next. Our Oxon mates had departed to try elsewhere but we chose to stay and explore the rest of the reserve. Beginning on the beach we found a lovely turnstone checking out cockle shells for any leftover tit-bits and then watched a small posse of sanderling running along the waters edge. I really like wading birds and it's always nice to see them by the coast as opposed to the concrete edge of Farmoor. The sanderling in particular captivated me for ages whilst I fired off shot after shot. We should make the drive down here more often.
We were hoping for bearded tits in the readbeds but once again were unlucky. Beardies are becoming a bit of a bogey bird and we haven't had a decent view of any for a while now. But they'll come. The freshwater lagoons were all frozen over and birds were limited but we saw oystercatchers, snipe and a marsh harrier.
Returning back to the main centre and crossing the tidal inlet we saw a little egret, a black-tailed godwit, some fly past ringed plovers and many duck species.
A few quick shots of the barred warbler again and we explored the eastern side of the reserve. A fine jay was caching acorns and a great spotted woodpecker drummed away unseen.
From the hide overlooking the tidal river a great black-backed gull gave its best vulture impression and a redshank pecked away at the muddy edge before being spooked by the male marsh harrier which almost gave me a good photo (only almost though!).
Time was pressing so after another hot drink in the cafe and after a few moments watching the bold little turnstones, one of which had jumped up onto the path and was investigating the nooks and crannies, we headed for home.
A very enjoyable day in a fabulous place but of course it was really all about the barred warbler.