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Tuning into the bird song on a ramble in Wilbraham Fen




Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti), Lesvos, Greece Picture: Simon Stirrup (36471926)
Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti), Lesvos, Greece Picture: Simon Stirrup (36471926)

On a ramble along the footpath into Wilbraham Fen we were entertained by loud birdsong. Blackbirds and wrens were in good voice but it was the warblers that stole the show.

In the still air we could even detect the initial soft note of the chiffchaff that usually precedes the classic repetition of its own name; it feels like a sort of practice note to see if the pitch is correct. From the damp scrub and reeds came the scratchy song of a sedge warbler which has a rhythmic quality like that of the reed warbler but is more varied, with some high-pitched phrases that remind me of a skylark. I always have to re-learn the difference between sedge and reed warbler song each season, just as I must to distinguish blackcap from garden warbler.

Singing Sedge Warbler, Aldreth, Cambs (36471954)
Singing Sedge Warbler, Aldreth, Cambs (36471954)

As we trudged past a marshy area of damp willow we agreed that the habitat was perfect for one of our less common warblers, and sure enough we were soon treated to the short, explosive songs of at least two Cetti’s warblers. This species is hard to spot as it skulks low in the bushes, but the song is unusual and, once heard, is not likely to be forgotten. It has been rendered thus: “Listen!...What’s my name?...Cetti, Cetti, Cetti – that’s it!” Somewhat drab in plumage, it often raises its long tail when perched before disappearing from view again.

In the hedges whitethroats parachuted in display flight or sang from the top of bushes while in the distance we caught the silvery cascading song of willow warblers. Marsh harriers and buzzards cruised overhead and, from far away, a cuckoo called – always an uplifting sound, though perhaps not for the local reed warblers.

The path at first follows the stream where the bright flowers of yellow flag shone out among the fringing vegetation. This beautiful iris is one of only two wild species. It normally grows with its roots in or near water. The other is the stinking iris or gladdon which is a plant mainly of woods and is less common. I was delighted to see it growing as a weed near our allotment, perhaps a remnant of earlier scrub or woodland. Its flowers are a drab brownish-purple and the leaves, when crushed, are said to smell of rotten meat.

As we left the reserve we gazed out over the reedbeds, hoping to add another warbler – an elusive species that can be frustratingly hard to see, but whose voice is distinctive – to our tally. Then we heard it, faint but clear, the reeling, almost insect-like song of a grasshopper warbler.

This month the flat white clusters of elderflowers are putting on a fine show and I have seen several people collecting them, presumably to make cordial or wine. Prominent among umbellifers now is the tall stately hemlock which can often be seen along roadsides. The stems bear characteristic dark blotches that help distinguish this highly poisonous member of the carrot family. It is a particular danger to cows as it can cause birth defects and is famously said to have

killed the Greek philosopher Socrates who, having

been sentenced to death, chose to leave the world by drinking hemlock tea.

Summer flowers are abundant just now at Trumpington Meadows, where sowing with native wild flower mix has resulted in a marvellous display of a mixture of once much commoner grassland species. The pink-purple flowers of meadow cranesbill intermingle with bright yellow patches of birds-foot trefoil and the grass parasite yellow rattle. The butterflies are abundant too with meadow brown, common blue and skippers, as well as the occasional marbled white.



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