The phragmites reed can grow up to 4m in height, has feathery purple flower spikes in summer which later produce abundant seeds in the autumn. These attract some rarer seed-eating migrant birds such as Whinchat, Aquatic Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler, as well as providing food for residents like Reed Bunting and Bearded Reedling. The latter is a spectacular small bird which is tied to reed beds all year round, nesting there and eating insects in the summer then feeding on the seeds in winter. Other summer nesters are the migrant Reed Warbler which prefers the dense centre of the bed and Sedge Warbler which breeds around the edges.
Reedbeds hide some very secretive wading birds, particularly in winter when large numbers of Snipe and Water Rail arrive from eastern Europe to take advantage of our milder climate. The cryptically camouflaged Bittern also winters here and much work has been done in the last 25 years to establish larger reed beds where they can breed, particularly in East Anglia and Somerset.
Small birds attract predators and in recent years there has been a welcome increase in Marsh Harriers which now breed in small numbers in Dorset and Hampshire. The habitat at the edge of reed beds is ideal for dabbling ducks such as Teal and Shoveler, and for small fish which in turn attract Herons and even Spoonbills and Common Cranes.
In winter Starlings take advantage of the safer and warmer conditions they find within reed beds in order to roost. Before doing so they often gather in large numbers, overflying and whirling around in substantial murmurations before plunging down into the reeds for the night. Lymington reed beds attract about 5000 birds but in Somerset there are gatherings of up to one million individuals.
Much of the knowledge gained about the bird life within reed beds comes from licensed bird ringers. Some larger birds are given distinctive and uniquely identified colour rings and Graham urged us to make a note of these when we see them and report them back to the ringers to add to the data being gathered.
Graham’s presentation was a detailed insight to a habitat that we may previously have regarded as unimportant. His knowledge and enthusiasm provided us with a fascinating evening, a high benchmark to start off our winter season.