Monday 29 June 2015

The MELODIOUS WARBLER in the West Midlands

Melodious Warbler (singing male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

During the early part of the afternoon on the 11th June, exciting news emerged of a Marsh Warbler singing just a stone's throw away from the private Marsh Lane Nature Reserve near Hampton-in-Arden. A hour later, following better views of the bird by the finder Alan Dean and Nick Barlow, the identification received an upgrade to either an Icterine Warbler or a Melodious Warbler.

Whatever species it was, I needed both of these scarce Hippolais warblers for my Warwickshire County list* and my West Midlands regional list. Finally by 3.00pm, after close scrutiny of the song and further improved views, the identification was clinched as a definite Melodious Warbler. Obviously, I was eager to leave work and get myself to Cornets End as quickly as possible.

* Along with the vast majority of Warwickshire birders, I do not recognise the 'metropolitan county' of the West Midlands for bird listing purposes and follow the old 'Vice County 38' recording structure.

Melodious Warbler (male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

Upon arrival at Mercote Mill Farm there were just three other birders on site. After an agonising twenty minutes or so I eventually heard a brief snatch of song followed by fleeting views of a pale-coloured, beefy looking warbler in the bright early evening sunshine. From the bird's uncooperative behaviour I could understand why it had taken a while for the correct identification to be confirmed. Following a further wait of around thirty minutes the Melodious Warbler then showed amazingly well out in the open, belting out its fabulous song from various vantage points on both sides of the bridleway. 

Melodious Warbler (singing male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

The rare visitor from southern Europe performed well for a while before disappearing into a patch of gorse and immediate falling silent. As familiar faces from around our region started to gather, eager as I was to see the bird, there was no sign or sound for well over two hours. Then, just as folks started to get a little desperate and despondent, the Melodious Warbler appeared once again, singing loudly just above our heads. The time was a little before 8.00pm. The bird then started to become restless and even left its small territory to fly along the entire length of a nearby hedgerow for a while. Fortunately, it returned to the favoured area of scrub before dusk where everyone eventually enjoyed decent views.    

Melodious Warbler showing shortish primary projection.
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

As I write, the bird is still present (up until 29th June) and is still tenaciously holding territory in a vain attempt to attract a mate. Even when in full song this is a species that is not usually that easy to observe in comparison to its more conspicuous cousin the Icterine Warbler. With a little patience though you can be rewarded with some stunning views, as demonstrated by this collection of fine photographs provided by Dave Hutton

During my visits I have heard quite a selection of mimicry, with Whitethroat being the most common. Other species copied include Blackbird (alarm call), Song Thrush ('zit' call), colybita Chiffchaff (contact call) as well as both Swallow and Sand Martin and very rarely the 'zerrrrr' of a Wren has been heard. If any visiting birders can add to this repertoire then I would be grateful if you could let me know.

Melodious Warbler (male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

The MELODIOUS WARBLER in the West Midlands region

As most keen birders will already know, seeing this species in Britain during spring is a very rare treat indeed. The vast majority of Melodious Warblers that occur in Britain are young birds recorded from August until mid-October following their presumed random dispersal from their breeding grounds in southern Europe. As would be expected, most of the records in Britain occur along the south and southwest coasts of England from Dorset to the Isles of Scilly at this time of the year.

In Europe the species breeds throughout the Iberian peninsula and France, north to the southern parts of Belgium, southeast Netherlands, southwest Germany and southwest Switzerland. There are also breeding populations on the island of Corsica, throughout Italy and out over to western Slovenia and northwest Croatia. In northwest Africa it can also be found albeit far less abundantly in northern Morocco, northern Algeria and in northwest Tunisia.

During winter the species non-breeding range consists of tropical west Africa from the Gambia, southern Senegal, southern Mali and Nigeria south to the Guinea coast and extending eastwards to central Cameroon.

From a British perspective we were averaging around 32 records of Melodious Warbler per year around the mid-1990s however this has now fallen to around 20 records per year, despite an increase in observer coverage. This may well reflect a decline in the species overall breeding density despite a slight increase in their range northeast in recent years.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it is therefore far from surprising the species is an extremely rare visitor to our region. The only other records are as follows:

2000 - Warwickshire - Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve - Adult - 3rd June only (trapped and ringed) - Andy Hale, Fred Stokes and Dave Stone.
1996 - Staffordshire - The Westlands, Newcastle-under-Lyne - 20th May only - WJ Low.

From a historical perspective the first official record of Melodious Warbler for Britain was of a bird killed near Looe, Cornwall on the 12th May 1905. There is a degree of controversy regarding this initial record however as a previous bird was allegedly shot dead some years before on the 30th April 1897 at Burwash, Sussex. Unfortunately this earlier record became tainted as the skin came into contact with the infamous Mr George Bristow. It was therefore later dismissed and rejected as part of the Hastings Rarities scandal.

Special thanks to Alan Dean for initially finding the bird and for providing all us rarity starved West Midland birders the opportunity to sample an avian taste of continental Europe right on our doorstep. An excellent account from Alan along with a study of the song and identification pointers can be found on his website at Birds In Particular.

My thanks and appreciation also go to Dave Hutton for letting me use a few of his excellent photographs here. It has taken him multiple visits and many hours in the field to finally get a series of shots he is happy with, being the perfectionist that he is.

This particular blog post is dedicated to the memory of West Midlands birding legend Eric Philips who sadly passed away suddenly on the 30th May 2015. A moving tribute to the great man by Steve Nuttall can be found at Belvide Birding. The many comments at the end of Steve's post show just how well regarded he was by all who knew him. 

Rest in peace Eric, the birding community of the West Midlands will miss you greatly. 

A 1970's caricature of Eric by Bryan Bland.

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