Beardies, Boomers and Reedbed Masters

Blog post by Oscar Lawrence on 03 Oct, 2023
I spend quite a lot of my free time in reedbeds. To the untrained eye, there doesn't seem to be much going on, but just beneath that vast blanket of swaying stems lies a world of secrecy, wonder and beauty. So, over the next few paragraphs, I will try to bring some of that beauty to you with five iconic reedbed birds. For this first section I'm going to tell you about my personal favourite - the bearded reedling.
Bearded Reedling:
Our small party of about ten were gathered on a boardwalk at Hickling. There wasn't much around, just a couple of oystercatchers zooming past and a chaser dragonfly patrolling back and forth on the hunt for insects. Suddenly a long-tailed bird sidled up a reed stem, calling with a distinctive ringing ping. We turned in awe of this stunning creature but after a few seconds it disappeared once more.
At first glance, bearded reedlings may look like another LBJ (‘little brown job’) but on closer inspection the adult male's plumage is, in fact, a bright russet-orange with white tail sides, a black undertail and pied wings. His head is an ashy shade of blue-grey adorned with a black plume of feathers extending from each sun-yellow eye, reminiscent of a pair of wispy beards, or even sideburns! Adult females are similar, but have a duller plumage overall and without the distinctive head pattern or dark undertail (replaced by - yes - brown.) Juveniles look very much like adult females, but have a black stripe on their back and you can tell young males apart by their black undertail.

Male beareded tit by Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION            Female bearded tit by Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION 
Reedbeds are a very difficult habitat for birdwatching because you simply can't see into them. The bird in question has to be either sitting at a reeds top or flying, for you to see it. Fortunately, reedlings do both of these things fairly regularly. Small groups (usually about four) often patrol reedbeds flying low over the vegetation and calling. The call is the easiest way to track these groups; the metallic "ting" contact between birds is a good indicator of their presence.
In the summer, they munch on bite-sized insects, but in winter their diet reverts to the seeds of the common reed. To accommodate this winter menu, the birds need to eat grit to help digest their food! The RSPB reserve Leighton Moss in Lancashire puts out grit trays to help supplement their natural diet. However, many of the UK's beardies are, in fact, in Norfolk! NWT Hickling Broad, and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen and Titchwell Marsh, are all three good sites. At Titchwell Marsh recently, I saw two young males, one young female and an adult male. Even so, don't expect it to be easy. The best tactic is often to find a good vantage point and just sit back to wait. Listening for the metallic ping is a plan.
Next, how about something completely different?
The soundtrack of a reedbed: sedge warblers chatter their excitable song from the tops of part-submerged willows, marsh harriers wail as they dive impressively, grasshopper warblers trill monotonously from a concealed perch in the vegetation and somewhere from deep within the marsh, an otherworldly gurgling boom, like a distant explosion, resonates for miles - meet the bittern!
The bittern has to be our oddest bird, it makes a noise like nothing else. It’s a rather large heron, yet still manages to hide in plain sight. In short, there is nothing that isn't weird about bitterns; they're unparalleled in oddity! But I believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I admire this bird's supreme weirdness.
Once you've found a bittern it will be easy to identify. In build, they are essentially like a stockier, slightly smaller version of the familiar grey heron. But their plumage is completely different. They look impeccably like dead reeds; the buffish ground colour marbled with chocolate-brown and black streaks blends in flawlessly with the surrounds which is why spotting them is the hard bit. Not only that, but given the fact that bitterns very rarely emerge from their dense reedbed habitat, you'd still be unlikely to see one even if it were bright blue.

Bittern flying by Jackie Dent                                                     Bittern by David Tipling/2020VISION

                                                     Oscar's bittern drawing

However tricky it may be, there are ways to see them. Some nature reserves like our beloved Hickling, Cley Marshes and RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk have dedicated bittern hides to give an intimate view of these masters of disguise. These hides are strategically placed to overlook pools which attract bitterns to fish, otherwise you can wait at a vantage point overlooking a vast expanse of reeds for one to fly up. In flight they retain the same heron-like shape (head drawn in, wings bowed and kinked), but look marbled brown overall. In spring, they sing their curious booming song, and put on a rarely seen courtship display that involves the male and female circling high into the sky and making a different croaking call. I have been privileged to see this incredible interaction at Wheatfen Broad nature reserve!
My overall advice is: pick a sunny May morning and go to any of these places. You may have to wait a while, but it’s definitely worth it.
Marsh harriers:
Marsh harriers are a little easier to find than bitterns and bearded reedlings as they are abundant throughout the Broads and pretty conspicuous too. They have a distinctive low, gliding flight interspersed with slow, shallow flaps. Females and juveniles are chocolate-brown with a cream chin and cap, giving a bandit-mask effect. Adult males have a brown body, but with silvery, black-tipped wings and a silver tail. They are also considerably smaller and, in the spring, perform rolling and diving display flights, the males passing food to their mates mid-flight.

Female marsh harrier by Brian Macfarlane                             Male marsh harrier by Julian Thomas
Marsh harriers became extinct in the UK as a result of persecution in 1899, but over the years migrants from the Netherlands began to recolonise the Broads in 1927 which has led to the current population of nearly 600 breeding pairs.
You can see marsh harriers in many Norfolk reedbeds and marshes (where mammal prey such as leverets are found). Cley Marshes is very reliable, as is the famed 'Raptor Roost' event at NWT Hickling's Stubb Mill area, which regularly receives double and sometimes triple figures on a winter evening. This really is a stunning event to go to and I highly recommend it.
The most recent wildlife news from the Broads has been centred on one of our most iconic birds. I am, of course, talking about spoonbills. This summer, the first ever successful fledging of a chick in the Broads occurred at Hickling. I know, everything good happens there! But Norfolk has been a stronghold for these rare birds since 2010, when a colony was found at Holkham Pines. This was a landmark discovery, because at this time spoonbills had been absent from the UK for 300 years! Since then, spoonbills have been spreading across the nation, but are still very rare and localised to certain pockets, North Norfolk being the key area.

Spoonbill by Bertie Gregory/2020VISION
These charismatic birds are around the size of a grey heron, but are white all over with black legs. Adults show a typical grooved, broad-tipped, spoon-shaped bill, dark grey with a yellow band at the tip. They sweep this bill side to side, filtering out fish and aquatic invertebrates. Juveniles are similar but show black wingtips and a pale brown bill. Spoonbills are certainly a welcome new addition to the British list.
Common crane:
Finally, the rarest and most mysterious of all five - the ‘common’ crane. After an absence of 400 years, three cranes arrived in the Broads in 1979 and remained throughout the winter. They first attempted to breed in 1981, and have been making their painfully slow recovery ever since. There are still only three known colonies: one at Hickling Broad and Horsey Gap, one at Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk and the last in Humberside, Yorkshire. A new colony has been introduced in the Somerset Levels too. But out of all of these colonies there are only 30 breeding pairs. So, hardly common, really.
The crane itself is a majestic bird, standing at an impressive 115 meters! They are similar to herons in shape, but as with spoonbills, they fly with an outstretched neck whereas herons and egrets' fly with curled up necks.
As for colouration, cranes are pretty distinctive. They are pale grey all over, with black wing feathers. This may lead you to confusion with the more well-known grey heron, but cranes have an unmistakable black head with a white streak and red nape (back of head).

Common crane by Mark Ollett
Hickling's Raptor Roost event is not only brilliant for marsh and even hen harriers, but is also the best place in the UK to see native cranes. When visiting on a calm winter evening, up to 50 can be seen flying past to roost on surrounding grasslands. Cranes also breed in Hickling's reedbeds, the chicks showing brown heads rather than black and white.
Their call is super eerie. A trumpeting clear crow, an exciting giveaway to a bird's presence! I once located a crane migrating over Norwich by following it’s call. It isn't impossible to see a crane out of the normal range as migrants from other countries sometimes appear in odd places.
This brings me to my conclusion. If you live in Norfolk, remember that you're truly lucky to be here. Get out there and enjoy nature and explore our wonderful reedbeds, you might see one of these true Norfolk gems.

Header image: swaying reeds by Paul Harris/2020VISION
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