Wildlife - South Derbyshire’s reed bed specialists


Bittern - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson finds South Derbyshire’s reed beds a subtly addictive habitat

Bearded reedling

Bearded reedling - Credit: Archant

here are few habitats where the majority of its specialist bird population blends in as well as in the case of reed beds. At first glance the waterlogged stands of plants can often seem a little too uniform to be called beautiful, and you would be hard-pressed to rate them higher than the sight of a delightful upland oak woodland in spring or the stunning purples of heather moorland in August. However, it is perhaps unwise to make comparisons as each has its own magical charm, and it is the wonderful variety of habitats that Derbyshire has to offer that keeps us both excited and entertained.

Reed beds are one of the UK’s rarest habitats. Years of land drainage to create our much needed farmland has seen them decrease hugely in the last 300 years. Lowland areas like the Erewash, Trent, Rother and Doe Lea valleys where rivers would regularly spill their winter waters would have had extensive areas of reeds and canary grass. Unfortunately our desire to build on flood plains and to reap the reward of these fertile soils meant that we drained wetlands and canalised rivers to such an extent that reed beds quickly disappeared.

Reed warbler

Reed warbler - Credit: Archant

Oddly our desire for road and house building has been a bit of a silver lining for these lovely plant communities. Our demand for sand and gravel is huge and the majority of it is mined in the same river valleys where rivers and glaciers dropped these valuable commodities. Mining in river valleys means that the water table is very near the ground’s surface and these new excavations quickly flood. Once the sand or gravel has been mined the area is often left as a series of pools where reeds quickly arrive and take up home in the shallow margins. Many of these new and potentially rich wildlife sites are often managed and designed by wildlife groups like Derbyshire Wildlife Trust as part of the deal to extract the sand or gravel. The upshot is that we have gained a good number of superb nature reserves where the reed bed specialists can once again gain a foothold in our county.

Reed beds are not the easiest habitat to work as a naturalist. The reeds usually grow in standing or slowly flowing water and often their roots are anchored in a good depth of semi-liquid mud. They are definitely not a place to wade around in, certainly dirty and very wet but also potentially a killer. It is, though, much to the naturalist’s advantage that a number of birds like reed warblers and bearded reedlings prefer the margins where we can get a view of them, if often only briefly.

Water rail

Water rail - Credit: Archant

There are two small birds that advertise their presence by their easily learnt calls. Bearded reedlings are still rare in Derbyshire but increasing numbers visit places like Willington, Williamthorpe and Drakelow during the winter. These are lovely birds and the male with his Mexican moustache is absolutely stunning. They can be most easily spotted by recognising their pinging call note.

The other small reed bed specialist is the reed warbler. Derbyshire has an increasing breeding population of these summer visitors and it is thought that up to 200 plus pairs now breed in the county. If you glance through the reeds it becomes quite clear that it is hard to see more than a few metres and I guess that this is also true for many of the birds so they compensate by calling or singing a lot, often quite loudly. Reed warblers are one of the great bird architects and their compact nest is slung from three or four reeds. Its deep cup-shape is another feature that allows the reeds and nest to blow over at quite a jaunty angle yet still retain its precious eggs.

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Two other reed bed birds always raise the pulse of the bird watcher. The bittern is a large heron-like bird whose plumage of beautiful browns and creams allows it to blend in well with the reed stalks. The other is the not as rare but hard to see water rail.

Bitterns became extinct as breeding birds in the UK due to land drainage yet every winter a number would pop over from the continent to delight bird watchers. Willington, Williamthorpe, Carr Vale, Ogston and Renishaw Park have all had birds in the last few years, with Willington now having them on almost an annual basis. None has bred yet in Derbyshire, possibly we don’t have the large acreage of reeds that they need, but with a little patience it’s not too hard to get good views in the winter.

Water rails are far more common and regularly breed in a number of Derbyshire’s wetlands, including Wyver Lane and Poolsbrook. Unfortunately (for wildlife photographers!), they are incredibly shy birds, although they do advertise their presence by their loud calls, which sometimes sound like a pig squealing. I have watched them on a number of occasions and in hard winters have traded maggot casters for photographs.

Whispering and sighing, the wind is the key element that brings reed beds to life. Perhaps at first glance many people might not consider them beautiful but having spent some time near them I have come to love this unique and delightful habitat.

I often think of times I’ve spent watching a small group of bearded reedlings feeding on fluffy seed heads or listening to the scratchy song of the reed warbler, then I am immediately transported back to the tranquil and golden reeds beds of Southern Derbyshire.