Various birds associated with water are not accurately described as water birds. Reed Buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus, wingspan 25cm) have undergone a serious decline in the last 30 years, even though they are fairly adaptable in finding nesting sites, which are mostly but not always close to water and can include agricultural land.
The pronounced shortage of seeds in winter, with little in the way of stubble fields, has not helped the species any more than it has helped such as the Yellowhammer. Harsh winters, which admittedly seem a thing of the past at the moment, are particularly bad news. Another problem, relating more to breeding, is the increasingly effective herbicides used to remove seed-rich flora (weeds, if you prefer the pejorative description) from arable fields and margins.
Reed Buntings are often quite approachable, enabling a full appreciation of their delightful plumage. Proof that a ‘little brown job’ in the birding world is merely a little coloured job that not enough people have bothered to look at closely.
Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus, wingspan 19cm) are widely distributed and fairly skulking birds usually heard, with a pretty repetitive and none too melodious song, before they are seen. They winter in Africa and nest in thick cover, usually but by no means always by water.
In this respect Sedge Warblers differ from the Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus, wingspan 19cm), which require the Common Reed (Phragmites australis), though not necessarily on the grand scale – small beds will do just as well providing there is good cover. As a result of their specific requirements, there are fewer Reed Warblers (up to 80,000 pairs) than Sedge Warblers (more than 200,000 pairs). They too winter in Africa.
The Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus, wingspan 17cm) is neither bearded nor a tit – it is a Moustachioed Reedling, but that title is hardly likely to catch on. Small birds, they are specific to large areas of reedbed and nearby wetlands, so any increase in that habitat will benefit them. Their numbers seem pretty stable at around 400 pairs, which is nothing like the number found in the Netherlands or France. The pictured bird is a captive.
Grey Wagtails (Motacilla cinerea, wingspan 26cm) seem yellow until a Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) turns up. For the record, the latter, a migratory species, has declined severely while the Grey Wagtail is maintaining its tally at about 30,000 territories across the whole country.
Grey Wagtails are commoner in upland regions than the south because they prefer fast-running streams, but any gravelly or stony watercourses, even those which are artificially constructed, are likely to attract them in the hunt for invertebrates. Watching one flitting about a gravel bed catching damselflies, with the long tail in characteristically perpetual motion, is an impressive sight. Broods of up to six require a constant stream of protein-rich invertebrates.
Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes, wingspan 14cm), small but not so small as the Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) and Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus), are universal and despite not being in any sense water birds they are often found close to rivers and streams, sometimes nesting on banksides. This is presumably because there are invariably plenty of small invertebrates in and around watercourses.
Wrens, which tend to stay within a metre or less of the ground other than when males are singing from perches in the breeding season, are one of our commonest birds. They are certainly commoner here than anywhere else – with around seven million breeding territories, Britain outscores Ireland by almost three to one and Ireland is well ahead of the other countries in Europe.
Wrens roost communally, often inside trees, in bad winters, with as many as 61 being found together once in a single location.
As a group, gulls are not popular, principally for unscientific reasons, in so far as they are raucous, predatory against some perceived ‘cuddly’ species such as puffins, and guilty of aggressive banditry when feeding on ponds and even in gardens.
None of which has any bearing on their standing, though they are undoubtedly becoming commoner inland than previously. The Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus, wingspan 100cm) is one of the most attractive of the band and providing there is some sort of water nearby they will nest virtually anywhere, from moors to sewage farms and rivers. Rafts, including those designed for Common Terns, are popular, another fact which does not endear the species to people.
Britain has getting on for 150,000 pairs, half of which nest inland. Most are in the north but they have expanded in lowland areas, a far cry from the collapse they suffered due to persecution and wetland drainage in the 19th century. Our tally is significantly smaller than those in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, but there seems no reason at present to lend additional encouragement to the species here.
Oddly, Gulls seem to be seen or found dead more often than any other group of birds. Whether this is connected with their having numerous parasites – picking one up is not recommended – is unknown, but either way they appear not to appeal to carrion feeders.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.