A pair of chest waders affords me access to the reedbed and, entering into its rustling embrace, I feel that I am in another world. The crowded stems, mostly of last year’s growth, remove horizons and play tricks with the limited perception of distance. This is a world dominated by sound, not least the soft drone of summer insects and the harsh staccato songs of Reed and Sedge Warblers. While most of the smaller reedbeds which fringe these old gravel pits are lush with new growth, this older bed is rather sparse. No doubt the emergent willow growth has had something to do with this, shading the bed and reducing the amount of standing water. Management work to remove the willow will not bear fruit until next year.
Each step forward is careful and considered. Not only do I have to be aware of underwater obstacles but also there are delicate nests in here. Little Grebe, Water Rail and Moorhen will use these beds for nesting, hiding their eggs within covered mounds of vegetation. Reed Buntings will tuck a nest away within the rough tumble of last year’s stems, compacted down by the winter snowfall. Then there are the low nests of Sedge Warblers and the more refined, woven nests of Reed Warblers that I am here to find and monitor.
Some of the nests had only been partially constructed on my last visit but are now finished and contain eggs. Some of the earlier pairs already have young; small, black-skinned and naked, they huddle helplessly in the nest, raising heads and bright gapes upon my approach, thinking I might be an adult returning with food. Reed Warblers tether their nests to reed stems and rely on this year’s growth for a solid support. As these stems grow, so the nest is transported upwards. Sadly, the lack of new growth has led one pair to attach its nest to a mixture of live and dead stems, the nest tipping precariously as the new growth pushes up beyond the single dead stem that has been incorporated. The chicks might just make it though, so short is their time in the nest (between a week and a fortnight from hatching).
Of course, the Reed Warblers face many other dangers. One of the most evident of these over recent days has been the Cuckoo, a female of which has been seen and heard around the reedbed. In fact, one of the nests in a nearby reedbed already contains a Cuckoo egg, its fate firmly sealed. Over the coming days I hope to see these blind and helpless chicks transform into bright-eyed, well-feathered youngsters ready to leave the nest and prepare for the journey south.