Mrs Caley and myself have visited many places over the last couple of years where reed bed birds are specialities. We've seen many of these special birds really well such as bitterns, cranes, water rails and many more but one species that has proven frustratingly difficult to pin down has been the bearded tit (or reedling). Yes we've seen them but usually only fleeting or distant views as they move through the reeds. Bearded tits really are reed bed specialists and are normally only found in large stands of reeds. Well known reserves like Titchwell, Minsmere and Lakenheath are strongholds for them but even at those places we've struggled recently for good views. After failing yet again at Titchfield Haven the previous week (while twitching the barred warbler) and after seeing some fantastic video and photos of beardies taken by friends of ours on the same day at a nearby site, we just had to get out somewhere to see some for ourselves. We chose to travel to the Somerset Levels (or the Avalon marshes) and more specifically to Westhay Moor where I'd heard that they are present in good numbers and relatively easy to see!
By good fortune we had chosen a beautiful sunny day to visit and we were more than optimistic that this would be our day. We arrived at the remote car park just after 9 o'clock after a reasonably quiet drive via the A40 and M5. We were the only people there. Apart from checking out the location when visiting Ham Wall earlier in the year, we'd never been to Westhay Moor so had no idea where to look or go but the reserve is well provided with information boards so we'd find our way around without any problems.
The main track passes a small lake and from a fair distance away the unmistakable bright white outline of a great egret could be seen. We walked towards this recent colonist to the UK and were watched warily by the bird as we approached. It stood its ground though and allowed some photos to be taken before flying off further into the reserve when buzzed by another great egret that flew low overhead. It really was a beautiful morning and the sunlight dazzled over the water and wonderful reflections of the reeds and trees were cast. A cormorant perched precariously upon a lone branch that protruded from the lake, its own fabulous colours looking positively radiant.
We checked out the first of a number of hides and scanned the reeds that stretched out in almost every direction. Little moved save for another (or the same) great egret flying past and we considered that catching up with our main quarry may not be so easy. I understood that grit trays were put out for the bearded tits benefit but we couldn't see any of those either. We walked on and saw a sign directing to the "Tower Hide". Thinking we'd get an elevated view of the area we followed the track which ran past reeds on the right and alder woodland to the left. Here we were surrounded by and treated to a cacophony of squeals and grunts emitted by what must have been dozens of water rails! They were all around us and we surprised several which either ran across the track or flew up from the reeds right next to the path. One ran no less than 3 feet past the back of Mrs Caley and with a bit more effort could easily have nutmegged her!
|water rails "scarpering"|
I spotted movement at the base of a small tree and thought "Cetti's". But on lifting the bins and peering through the tangle of branches at the base of the tree a female bearded tit appeared. We were in! A male was there too and we were only 20 feet or so away.
|the female bearded tit|
The two birds made their way into a very narrow strip of dried reeds that stood in a channel between the path and the alder trees. We could track them easily by watching the movement of the reed stems but the birds were difficult to see well, staying as they did, low down in the tangle of vegetation. It was also dark since the trees had blocked out the sun. After a couple of minutes of following the birds movements but still no great views they seemed to have disappeared maybe into the trees. We walked on but strangely not frustrated this time but heartened by the encounter and eager to find more. More water rails ran across the paths and yelled their disquiet at our intrusion into their world but there was no further sign of the beardies. Another fine great egret flew lazily past.
The Tower Hide was more of a "hop-up" hide but did allow a more extensive view of the reed beds. The reeds and the surrounding water were very quiet though and a young mute swan was on view. We left the hide and followed the track through more mature woodland back to the main track again. Here a jay was prancing along the grassy edge looking to cache some food or maybe raid its own stores for a snack. We had a decision to make, should we carry on to the further hides or return to the place where we saw the bearded tits? Thankfully we chose the latter. On nearing the same tree I noticed movement in the reeds again and sure enough located the pair of beardies once more. Now the sunlight had penetrated further along the track so the light was better. We were now getting some better views and very close too. It is easy to see though why bearded tits are plumaged the way that they are since their camouflage even at such close range is incredible!
We stood still and watched the antics of the two birds. They became more active in the increasing warmth and become more visible and were now showing well at times higher up the reed stems. You think of bearded tits being quite dainty birds maybe owing to the long tails but in reality they are dumpy little things and actually move through the reeds pretty clumsily. They are easy to follow since they made a lot of noise as they (almost) crashed from one reed to another.
|female is so beautifully marked|
It took a good few minutes though before I managed to start getting some decent unhindered views and hence some decent photo opportunities. The light was now really good and we were so close that surely even I couldn't mess this up! Not so easy though since the camera didn't like the mass of vegetation and the birds are very cryptically coloured so it had to be manual focus only.
|the male with his fabulous moustache!|
The bearded tits suddenly flew across the path into the reed bed the other side and disappeared. We never saw another one for the rest of the day! We explored further though and reached another major track which had lakes either side. Many ducks were busy on the water with gadwall, teal, wigeon and mallards noted along with coots and moorhens. Best though were 6 fine goosanders that graced the largest lake. Never close but it's always good to see these big sawbills.
We had a distant fly past by a bittern, a male marsh harrier quartered across the reed tops but (as always seems to be the case with them) stayed well out or range and watched a small party of long-tailed tits flit through the trees.
|male marsh harrier|
After a nice lunch in a nearby cafe we spent an hour or so at Ham Wall without seeing much new of any note except for a wisp of snipe that flew past but by then we'd seen what we had come for so were already well satisfied!
|"wisp" of snipe|