Birding Trip Report: Dusky Warbler at Kingsbury Water Park, Warwickshire 29/12/18
The First Reports
On the 23rd December, a report came through on my phone of a probable Dusky Warbler that, for some bizarre reason had decided to set up its winter home in a patch of reedbeds perilously close to one of the busiest motorways in the whole of the UK, the M42. Understandably, almost as soon as the news was broadcast, there was a great deal of scepticism. There was a talk online over a Dusky Warbler that had been reported in Nottinghamshire a few years ago that was later reidentified as a female Cetti's Warbler.
At this time of course, thoughts were mostly focused on Christmas, and for me, the altogether easier twitch of a Black-throated Diver that at the time of writing seems content on Arrow Valley Lake near Redditch in Worcestershire. Still, I kept an eye and an ear on events in North Warwickshire, still feeling sceptical, but at the same time praying that somebody would nail down the ID. My prayers would be answered on Boxing Day at a little after 10 am, when a rather grainy but unmistakable image of a Dusky Warbler appeared on Twitter. There it is I thought, a first for Warwickshire (going by modern county boundaries). With the ID confirmed, the main challenge for me was setting aside a morning to pay it a visit.
The Location of Kingsbury Water Park
Journey to Kingsbury
Of course there was little chance of me visiting on Boxing Day, as I'd already scheduled a return trip to Redditch, plus I wanted to fit in a couple of final trips to the local patch for the year. Also, there was the small matter of my birthday on the 28th December, so I earmarked the morning of the 29th December as the moment that I would hopefully connect with 'Dustin' as it came to be known to Paula and I.
Rather inconveniently I ended up feeling under the weather on the 28th December and ended up sleeping for most of the day. Even so, a painful migraine ended up serving as a blessing in disguise as I ended up rising early on the 29th. You see, the advice being put out on social media stated that in order to get the best chance of connecting with the bird, it was best to be on site at dawn (8 am) as the bird was most active at this time.
Whilst still under the cover of darkness I set out into the big wide world and made the relatively short trip into North Warwickshire to Kingsbury Water Park. Kingsbury, is one of the Midlands's prime birding sites, forming a part of the extensive valley that surrounds the Rive Tame.
However, Kingsbury is also a major public attraction and thus is probably best avoided during holidays and weekends. It was a place that I'd visited a few times as a child, and usually we'd parked in the main car park off Bodymoor Heath Road, but the directions advised birders that the best option was to park in the much smaller and hopefully quieter Broomey Croft Car Park, situated about a mile further down the road.
The journey there for me was fairly routine, simply travelling through an area of the West Midlands known as North Solihull, into Warwickshire and through the historic town of Coleshill, before veering off towards Kingsbury just before reaching Shustoke. Once through the village of Nether Whitacre, I was rather surprised and dismayed to hit a long line of traffic. I assumed it was road works, but as I drew nearer to Kingsbury I saw no evidence of traffic cones or highway vehicles. Quite why the traffic was so heavy at this time was a complete mystery to me, until I came within sight of the main entrance to the Water Park. Despite the near darkness, most of my fellow motorists were actually heading to Kingsbury for a day out. I did contemplate whether any other birders had got caught up in it, but all of the cars in front of me turned right into the main entrance, and a quick glance in the rear view mirror once clear revealed that all the other cars were doing likewise. I prayed that Broomey Croft wouldn't be busy.
After crossing over the M42 I turned right into the Broomey Croft entrance and followed the windy road past the Outdoor Education Centre and Caravan Park until I reached Broomey Croft Farm and the adjacent car park. From there it was a short walk around a couple of small pools to the hallowed reedbeds.
The Dusky Adventure
Upon emerging from the car, laden down with binoculars and camera, I was greeted by the wonderful winter sight of Broomey Croft Pool, complete with good numbers of Eurasian Wigeon and Gadwall in attendance. But with dawn well under way, I was eager to get to the bird. After consulting a map, I followed the trail, although the sound of the relentless traffic acted as a rather useful navigational aid. As I rounded the Grebe Pool I came across the first of many birders that were present on the site. They looked exhausted, and their faces seemed to drop even more when I smiled at them. Normally, I don't tend to ask for directions or whether the bird was still present, as I like to retain the mystery, but given the elusive nature of this bird, my brain forced me to blurt out the question.
The birders looked at each other for a moment, before a tall chap informed me that while the bird had been highly vocal, he and his companions had only managed to obtain very brief flight views of it. Not enough in their opinion to establish that they had actually seen a Dusky Warbler for certain. He also informed me that a further 20 birders were up ahead scouring the reedbed. A smaller chap spied my camera and asked me if I was going to try and get a photo. I chuckled and simply told him that I was just going to point, shoot and hope for the best. That remark seemed to cheer them up a little bit, and with that I wished them luck and carried on towards the throng of birders.
I saw them there gathered in two groups, each one covering every possible place the bird might appear. I approached the birders quietly, a few turned round and acknowledged my presence with smiles and nods. There would be no question asking here, I could smell the tension in the air. Planting myself on the edge of one of the groups, I cocked my head towards the reedbeds, straining my ear in the hope of catching a call over the Motorway din. Sure enough I heard it, a hard clicking 'teck teck' call, that sounded to me, rather similar to a Lesser Whitethroat. As one, we all cocked our heads towards the sound, with some training their binoculars towards it, hoping to catch a flicker of movement. But none; and so the merry dance began, with the bird calling frequently and birders following the call but failing to catch a glimpse.
Footage of a Rather More Showy Dusky Warbler at Portland Bill, Dorset
At some point in the morning, the bird began calling a few feet further along the reedbeds close to a thicket, which led to a small group of birders including myself to leave the main group and creep along the trail towards the sound. We paused, and trained our binoculars on the mass of vegetation in front of us, but still nothing. Then, a considerable pause in the proceedings, as the bird fell silent. Some birders took to talking among themselves, others retired to calm their nerves with a cigarette, others still including me took to observing other birds in the area. Great Cormorants were fairly frequent flying over, I also saw three Greylag Geese pass over and Eurasian Teal were heard frequently giving out their distinctive ringing whistle call. A female Eurasian Sparrowhawk wowed the crowds with a flypast, and a huge Northern Raven proved popular with a few of the party. A Great Spotted Woodpecker passed by which caused a few to wrongly ID it as a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Lesser Spots had been reported in the area, but this bird was far too big, so a Great Spot for sure. As well as the Dusky, the Warbler fraternity was represented by at least a couple of Cetti's Warbler and at least three Common Chiffchaffs, whose presence close to where the Dusky was did cause a few hearts to flutter at times.
With the pause ongoing, I took a moment to look around at the throng of birders. Clearly I was the youngest there by a fair distance, I was also among the tallest- always an advantage when attempting to peer over another's shoulder. It meant that there was less pressure for me to force myself closer to the front. By now the pause had made us fidgety and restless, and some of us even elected to wander off to scour a wider area. I scanned the faces and recognised a couple who I'd already met in the field. Others looked like birders I'd encountered on social media but I wasn't sure. The last thing I wanted to do was wander over to said birder and say: 'Hey are you so and so?" Only to be told "No sorry mate." In the end I was the one who was recognised by a friendly birder who had seen me on Twitter. He was a regular at Brandon Marsh in South Warwickshire and we got talking about there, Twitter and my own local patch Elmdon Park, which he was familiar with through his work. I was interested to hear how he had seen his first Firecrest there back in 1984. Other than my own records and a few tidbits I'd read in West Midlands Bird Club reports my knowledge of bird records from Elmdon was virtually nil, so that was a valuable piece of knowledge.
More Dusky Warbler Footage, This Time From NE China
So Near, So Far
The pause ended and the now familiar 'teck teck' call started up again, and our collective attention was once again back on the patch of reedbeds close to the thicket. Then, a flicker of movement, or was it? "Its there!" I heard someone cry. "Its out in the open!" I scanned the spot frantically with my binoculars but saw nothing apart from the briefest of flickers before once again beholding the same clump of branches and reeds I'd been staring at for over two hours. The flicker was indeed bird like but nowhere near conclusive enough for me to be able to identify it as a Dusky Warbler conclusively.
Frustration had started to set in, and glances at my phone to check the time had become more frequent. I'd promised Marley that I would be back to walk him at dinner time. It was still only mid morning, but it felt like I'd been here for days. Still, the Dusky tantalised us, calling over and over again, leading us still on our merry dance. By now the birders who had spotted the Dusky Warbler out in the open had left the scene, happy with their views, leaving the rest of us split into two groups. Each of us had a particular area of the reedbeds covered, but the bird fell silent yet again. Would it remain silent for the rest of the day?
I'd thought about leaving, I really did. My brain tried to convince me that that brief flicker was enough, but I knew full well that could have been anything. Then my brain told me just to give up, to put it down as a dip and come back tomorrow. I was determined though, not to make a return trip, as nice as this patch was (motorway withstanding). Then the Dusky started calling again, this time close to my position, and it sounded as though it was getting closer and closer until then...yes a flicker of movement in the reedbeds. Quickly my binoculars were pointing directly to where the reedbeds continued to move...for a moment it was hidden, but then another flicker and...yes that's it!! I saw the distinctive Warbler shape, I saw its brown upperparts and dusky brown underparts. More importantly, I saw the head- the pale supercilium, the black eye stripe, the plain ear coverts. I even just about got a glimpse of its wings and noted the shorter primary projection compared to the local Chiffchaffs. I breathed a sigh of relief and so did a few others. Some birders however, missed it and were consigned to waiting for the next opportunity.
The wave of relief that washed over me felt fantastic. If I'd had microphone in my hand I would have simply dropped it and strolled away. In my head all I could hear was two words- mission accomplished! Still, looking around at the assembled line of increasingly desperate birders, a part of me was reluctant to leave. I almost felt as though I should stay and try help others to get a good view, but a glance at my phone revealed that the time was marching relentlessly towards midday. It was time to leave and be about my dog walking duties.
© 2019 James Kenny