Whilst John and I were birding in Suffolk one June, news of a Savi’s Warbler half an hour’s drive from where we were came to our ears, and with such a rare bird so close we decided that we had nothing to lose and headed off to find it. What followed brought up several birding dilemmas that have gnawed at the conscience of many a birder over the years – that of twitching and the tricky question of what criteria are needed to tick a bird off your list.
The Savi’s warbler is a plain brown warbler with skulking habits and precise habitat requirements; it is found almost exclusively in reedbed (except on migration) and except when it’s singing it is difficult to see to say the least. This bird is found throughout Europe but has barely even a toehold in the UK; it breeds here very infrequently in small numbers at only a few random reedbeds across the country, in fact if it weren’t for the warbler’s song I doubt if we would know it was here at all. Talking of the song, the Savi’s warbler has about the most un-bird like song out of all the warblers, it perches upon a slender stalk of reed and upon opening its mouth lets out a continuous reeling noise – somewhat similar to the sound of electricity when you stand near a pylon. It is this quirky aspect of an otherwise dull-looking bird that makes it appealing to birders, as well as the fact that it’s really rare.
It had apparently been identified on a national nature reserve near the village of Walberswick; a large area of reedbed and woodland on the coast, upon arriving in the afternoon we spent a fair while straining our ears for the distinctive song and scanning the monoculture of reed, but apart from some excellent Bearded Reedlings and a few Reed Buntings our efforts were in vain. We decided that the time of day was wrong; this bird is usually heard and seen in early morning or at dusk so we retired and decided to try again at a better time. We returned the next evening at around half past six, as we walked out of the woodland and onto the raised path that led out into the vastness of the reeds, we heard a distinct buzzing carried on the wind and originating from somewhere within the reeds to our right. My pulse quickened and I grinned at John, the sound could only be from the bird in question. However, as I might have guessed, after that initial burst of song we heard neither hide nor hair of the Savi’s warbler for the rest of the evening, despite hanging around like lost souls until darkness had descended then left doubting if we had heard anything at all.
By this point my brain had been infected by the tunnel-vision-inducing nervous condition known as ‘Twitching’, which has been known to affect the odd birder from time to time. This meant that my desire to see this particular bird was far stronger than it should have been and defied reason and logic, although to be fair I think most birders would be pretty keen to see a rare bird that is so close to home. John did not quite share my overriding need to see the Savi’s warbler but he was willing to give it another go, so on our last evening in Suffolk we drove back to Walberswick and strode out into the reeds once more. We hung around the spot where it was purported to be, our ears struggling to catch a hint of song, although a fair breeze was blowing which reduced our chances. After an hour standing in one spot looking at nothing like a couple of wallies we walked further along the path to where another birder was stood, also on the trail of the Savi’s. To our annoyance he claimed to have heard some song a few minutes back, we decided to stick with him in the hope that the bird would repeat its performance. To our immense relief the bird’s weird song eventually reached our ears for a good fifteen minutes, the sound getting louder then quieter as the bird turned it’s head. But despite peering through our scopes in the direction of the sound we could not locate the physical bird and had to give in to our rumbling stomachs and return home.
This is the problem; John and I clearly heard the Savi’s warbler and there was no mistaking the song, the bird had been verified by numerous other birders too, so there was no question as to the identification – yet we had not seen it. My usual rule is that I will only tick a bird off of my list if I have seen it, but I know that other birders are happy to only hear a bird. So do I tick off the Savi’s warbler? I was conflicted but eventually I agreed to make an exception and tick this one – it’s song was distinctive and the bird itself is hardly much to look at anyway. But it did bring up the question of what criteria are required to confidently ‘tick off’ a bird? Should it be down to personal discretion? Even so, should you allow yourself to bend your own rule? The other problem is that I had let myself twitch a bird, I had wanted to see it more for the tick on my list than the actual bird itself – and that goes against my personal ethos as well as breaking away from what constitutes a true birder. Was I wrong? It was an interesting bird and I had learnt a lot about its habits and natural history, and it was so close, too close to ignore (I am pleading now!), anyway, food for thought and a nice anecdote to boot at least.