Sounds of... reedbeds

Reed warbler singing in reedbed

Birdsong: it is the soundtrack to our adventures, the tunes to which we explore. This is your guide to some of the brilliant birds whose songs accompany you as you head outside this spring and summer.

Reed warbler singing in reedbed

The Sounds of… Reedbeds is your guide to the eclectic set list of calls which ebb and flow through the fens where land and water entwine.  This is a place where secretive birds seduce us with song, often the only clue they are there at all. Their trills, shrills, beeps and booms reverberate through the reeds and radiate the richness of life which lives in these hidden worlds at the water’s edge. 

Of course, many of our more common birds also live here, you can hear their songs in the Sounds Of… Parks and Gardens and Sounds of Parks and Gardens - Tits and Finches pages.

Reed warbler

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The reed warbler is a little brown bird who spends most of their time hidden within the reeds. They visit every summer, mainly to the south and east, making their incredible weaved nests between two or three reed stems.  

The shy raver. Remains hidden within the reeds mixing his rhythmic bursts of beeps, trills and shrills. Repeats one phrase a number of times to a constant beat, before smoothly spinning into the next.  

Reed bunting

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The male reed bunting looks wise, with his white droopy ‘moustache’ highlighted against his black head and throat. His wings are streaky brown, while his chest is a pale grey. Females are streaky brown all over and difficult to tell apart from other female buntings.  

Sings a short stanza of six or seven quick fired notes, before he stops to listen to see what his rivals bring to the table. He’s then off again, each time tweaking and refining in search of pitch-perfect perfection.  

Bearded tit

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You would think the male bearded tit would have had waterproof mascara living in the reedbeds. But it looks like this isn’t the case, with big black shadows falling from his golden eyes. The rest of his outfit is immaculate, with a golden brown body, long tail and grey head. The female is mainly brown but with an equally impressive long tail.  

A minimalist songster. It’s nasal “peeoo” is repeated and sounds a little like a bad case of the sneezes.

Sedge warbler 

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The sedge warbler is another warm weather visitor who dresses in brown. Thankfully they have a more obvious white eye stripe than the reed warbler. They also tend to be more confident and outgoing, often watching you watching them.  

A bird who sings with joyful abandon, not playing along to any obvious rhythm or rules. Like a jazz master, the jerky, fast-flowing, and restless notes keep you on your toes. Often delivered from the sky.   

Cetti’s warbler 

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(c) Agustín Povedano, Flickr

The Cetti’s warbler is a dumpy little bird with upper feathers of dark chestnut brown. Its lower body is a pale grey and it has a thin circle of white around each eye. It is a relatively recent arrival in the UK, first breeding in 1972. But unlike some of the other warblers, it sticks around all year, mainly in the south and east of England.  

A loud rich song, firing out a flurry of short sharp notes which seem to scratch the sky. A restless performer who often skips off to a different location between bursts.  

Water rail  

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The water rail is a bird best described as having a confused fashion sense.  Its upper parts are streaked in chestnut brown and black which fade to a grey head and chest. Its black and white striped flanks, a long red bill and pale pink legs complete the look of a bird who seemingly fell into a jumble sale.  

The British Trust for Ornithology describe water rail calls as  “a wide range of unlikely squeals, grunts and groans, ranging from 'squealing piglets' to the 'purring of contented squirrels'”. We don’t think we can beat that. 

Marsh harrier 

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The marsh harrier is our largest harrier and makes an impressive sight as it glides over reedbeds and wetlands. The female is bigger than the male and mostly brown apart from a cream-coloured head. Males are more mottled, with grey wings tipped with black.  

A repeated “arup arup” call, understated yet confident as if they know they’re the biggest harrier around. Seems relaxed, spacing out the calls with a few seconds break between.  

Grasshopper warbler

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The grasshopper warbler is another brown warbler that makes an epic journey from Africa to be here every summer. It moves like a mouse through cover and would remain pretty anonymous if it wasn’t for their song… 

A continuous tirade of fast-flowing notes, which could easily be mistaken for a loud grasshopper. Bobs his head as he sings. Despite all this, grasshopper warblers are hard to spot. 

If you're lucky...


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The bittern is seldom seen, secretly skulking away in the reeds, hidden by its excellent camouflage. When you get a glimpse, it is a big stocky bird, with a head that blends into its wide neck. It feathers are streaky shades of gold and brown. Very rare, only seen in a handful of places in England and Wales.  

Wins gold for the loudest bird call in Britain.  Masters of the sub-bass, this is a boom which could be mistaken for a friendly giant playing a low note on a set of mythical pan pipes. The resulting boom reverberates in your bones and can travel for miles.