Reed Bunting at Mersehead, Solway, March 2011

Male reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) at Mersehead, Solway, March 2011 © Colin Woolf

On our walks through the woods and up the hill at the back of our house, we sometimes see reed buntings flitting around the birch trees.  These are elusive little characters, easily recognisable by their striking black head, but frustratingly difficult to photograph because they never seem to stay still.   We’ve caught snatches of their song, delivered from the safety of a hawthorn hedge;  I’ve even seen one in the garden, although it gone before I could even think about fetching a camera.

I thought I would find out a bit more about these shy little songbirds…

Habitat:   Reed buntings, as their name suggests, prefer wetlands, marshy areas and reed beds.  They are present in the UK all year round, frequenting farmland and hedgerows in winter.

Plumage:  On their back and wings, both male and female birds have rusty brown plumage streaked with black;  the chest is a creamy-white, delicately streaked with buff.  In summer, the males have a black head with a drooping white ‘moustache’;   the black fades to mottled brown in winter.

Diet:   Mainly seeds, but the adult birds catch insects to feed to their young.

Breeding:    From April to mid-July.   The nest is close to the ground, made from grasses and twigs with a mossy lining.   Between three and six eggs are laid, and two (sometimes three) broods are produced in a year.

Reed Bunting on Islay, Dec 2009

Male reed bunting on Islay, Dec 2009 © Colin Woolf

According to the website ARKive, the reed bunting is found throughout the UK but is “not as common in the uplands and the far north and west”.   This one (above & below), photographed amid open peaty grassland in the centre of Islay in December 2009, was therefore quite an unusual discovery, although we didn’t realise it at the time.

The reed bunting is more widely distributed in Europe than any other bunting.  Although not endangered, the species is apparently threatened by the loss of wetland habitats throughout its range.  After two years of seemingly endless rain, at least here in Scotland, I hope we might be seeing more of them!

Reed bunting in a flooded field

Reed bunting in a flooded field © Colin Woolf

These photos show the birds in their winter plumage;  you can see them in summer plumage on the ARKive website.  All images copyright © Colin Woolf.