Country diary: Single or taken? All is revealed in the reed bunting’s song

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

I’m at the base of the dyke that holds back the tidal waters of Lough Foyle. As dawn emerges from the sea behind me, I gaze across the reedbeds of the freshwater drainage lagoons. Beyond them, panels of washed colour are seeping into a polder landscape of rape, wheat and grass.

The reeds stir. Sedge warblers have hoicked themselves up the swaying stalks to blast their abrasive arias. Through chitters, whistles and clacks, there are snatches of reed bunting. This is what I’m here for – those short rapid stanzas of about six scratchy syllables; punctuated by long silences. The cadence is typical of many species – regular pauses provide a chance to gauge rivals and muster a response – but in the reed bunting, there are differences between mated and unmated males’ song. This one, his tempo reveals, is a bachelor.

There he is, balancing like a gymnast on a lurching reed, his tail flicking double-time to the wind’s pulse. He throws back his summer-black head to announce himself. I wonder what he lacks to female reed buntings because, to me, he’s a fine-looking chap. His singing performance is loaded with critical information – on his genes, early nutrition, development and age – that my ears can’t discern. But I do hear how individual he sounds. Indeed, each reed bunting opens his song with his own characteristic phrase – a moniker that reveals who he is. The line of bunting territories along this narrow fen is therefore like a street with every property nameplated.

Ahead is a reed bunting that has audibly achieved his desire. He sings a rasping croon that slowly unspools slowly and almost without pause. It’s his serenade to his mate – and possibly to others. Because, notwithstanding their social monogamy, over a breeding season in which pairs can produce several broods, both sexes may seek matings elsewhere; usually before a rising sun can glare on their indiscretions.

And here it is: the sun. The dyke’s shadow that has been coming my way slips past. From now on, the male buntings’ slow serenades will diminish to periodic bursts. Or stop altogether. For there’s a pair calling to each other as they forage through the gold-lit reeds. Perched close by, like a line of musical notation on the tall stems, are six yellowish-hued juveniles – a father’s song, fledged.

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