Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Moustached reed babblers

I have been watching reedlings with a friend at a site in the south east for the last few years, and after a long winter with almost 6 months of no sightings, recent weeks have been incredible. This is the first spring that I have had time to spend searching for and watching pairs, and although difficult to access large areas of reed bed, 2 nests and atleast 4 pairs have been pinned down in one small area.
Reedlings are only a recent colonist in Ireland, spreading from 4 at one site, found in November 2010 to several pairs at 4 sites in 2013. One of these sites was extensively flooded this winter with sea water and so far only singles have been seen this spring. Fingers crossed the birds havn't moved far. Two small colonies were established in the late 70's, but both had disappeared 5 years later with various reasons given for their demise. Depending on who you ask, fluctuating water levels, successive cold winters, habitat destruction and low-numbers and a small gene-pool have all been blamed.
 Apart from 2 spring males in 1990, it had been a gap of almost 30 years upto their recent appearance. 

 Sketches of my first beardies from Lake Tata in Hungary, May 2004.

 Male Reedlings, Ring Marsh, March 2012.
 Juvenile male reedling, Tacumshin Lake, July 2012.
 Adult female, Tacumshin. February 2012.

After great views of juveniles and family parties upto late September 2013, the birds went quite and calls were only heard from 2 sites, about 1 km apart on January 2nd 2014. It wasn't until early April that birds became more vocal and another week before I finally saw my first of the year, a male briefly perched in the open. 
The following week things really started to get going with 2 males and a female showing well by a channel. By the end of the day, a single male and female appeared paired up and settled into a spot in the reeds. It was only on the next visit was the nest site was pin-pointed, about 10 feet from the channel on dry ground in a dense clump of reeds and grass. Leaving a friend watching these I tried to pin down and few more and quickly found a pair at a site used last year, then another close by. Between all these pairs, single calls were heard and it was difficult to know how many birds were around. A final pair was found at the end of the channel which hosted the first pair, with another bird heard further in, away from all the others! A possible fifth pair were found a few days later, but it is so difficult to establish territory sizes and ranges.

Pair preening each other after leaving the nest, April 2014.
At one site, pro-longed views of the female thought me a valuable lesson in estimating numbers. The distintive 'pching PCHING pching pching' calls I had, to date attributed to pairs or small flocks were all coming from her! Several times I have heard this call, and even early this year I have assumed a small flock were close by. Little wonder I didn't see any!
After calling, she was soon joined by 2 males and a mouse like chase began through the reed bases at lightening speed. A clucking 'tuk tuk tuk' call was heard but hard to know which bird was making it. It was similar to juvs but faster and deeper, the female ended the chase by flying towards me and landed within feet. A brief skirmish between the males with one given his marching orders before the female dropped back down to join the victor. Fluttering her wings infront of him, they mated deep in the reed bases.

 Female checking me out while the males fought.
This pair seem to be nesting close to the channel in some dense nettles. All the pairs seem to be along wider channels, atleast 10 feet across, this could be just that these are the easiest areas locate them being able to view from a distance. There are several narrower channels I have yet to hear birds in.
This is the first time I have seen females well in spring and I have been struck by their dark bills. I had passed of female types with darkish bills last summer as moulted juvs but it clearly seems to be a summer feature. The eyes also seem darker in summer than in winter, and as pointed out by a friend, a thin black ring of 'mascara' is present also. I can't find reference to these features online and they are not mentioned in any field guides I have.
Female reedlings, 2014.
Ad breeding female,  two non-breeding and a juvenile female.

Breeding female,dark bill, darker eye and 'mascara' eye ring.

Adult non-breeding female.
Yellow bill and eye and no black eye ring.

Male reedlings, ad, moulting and juvenile.
The black under tail coverts are moulted in quickly, the face gets a little swarty, before the grey head moults in, starting with the forhead.
 Juvenile males, August 2013.
 Juvenile male, Tacumshin, July 2012.

Adult males, just stunning!

I can't wait to get back down and see what the next visit brings.