I have always found reedbeds to be an enticing habitat; lush and green at the height of summer, brown and brittle in winter but seemingly always in motion and prompted to ‘whisper’ by the softest breeze. There is an apparent contrast between the reedbed in these two seasons – packed with life in summer and seemingly empty during the bleak days of midwinter. While it is certainly true that many of the reedbed’s summer creatures are gone (think of the Reed and Sedge Warblers now wintering in Africa) others remain. Most of the latter are insects and other invertebrates, some of which will have fed on the reeds themselves while others, notably the spiders, will have made a living from their fellow inhabitants. These small creatures will be tucked away, sitting out the worst of the weather either as eggs, larvae, pupae or adults. They are there and can be found if you venture into the reeds with a beating tray and a stout stick.
The winter reedbed does hold some larger creatures as well; the secretive Water Rail, which may only reveal its presence through its unusual (for a bird) grunts and squeals. These are more commonly heard in summer than winter, so catching up with this skulking reedbed denizen can require a degree of patient watching. Water Rails have a very wide diet, feeding on a range of invertebrates, vegetative matter, frogs and newts. When the weather conditions deteriorate then the rails may resort to feeding on carrion, sometimes even attacking small birds or visiting garden feeding stations. The winter reedbed may also hold an equally secretive visitor, the Bittern, whose winter numbers here in the UK may be swelled by birds arriving from further east if waterbodies there freeze over.
Other birds also make use of the reedbed during the winter months, with Pied Wagtails, Reed Buntings and even Starlings using the reeds as an overnight roost, secure from predators. One of my local reedbeds has been well-used by wagtails and buntings, the birds arriving just before dusk and leaving quietly, soon after dawn. The reeds also attract parties of Bearded Tits, whose chattering calls echo the bright personality of these delightful little birds.
Many of our reedbeds are fairly small but the larger expanses found in some parts of the county provide a substantial amount of habitat. Many of these larger beds are managed, either to halt the incursion of scrub or to supply reeds as thatch, and it is uplifting to see reeds being cut by hand, tied and stacked. This form of harvesting seems more in touch with the wider natural world and our place within its annual cycle. Long may it continue.