A traveller out of Africa and thriving by a canalside near you

News that one native bird species is increasing is music to the ears, says Sheena Hastings.

WE’RE more used to reporting the decline of bird species, so any news that a native British bird is actually on the increase is something to be celebrated.

According to British Waterways Board, numbers of reed warblers have increased by almost half on Britain’s canals in the past decade. The population rose by 48 per cent from 1998 to 2008 on canals and rivers managed by British Waterways, research from the British Trust for Ornithology has found.

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The report suggests that the rise is due to birds moving more on to canals, where narrow fringe reed beds can provide habitat for them, when populations from more extensive reed beds expand. British Waterways said the boost in numbers on canals was down to improved water quality and better conservation of reed bed habitats in the man-made waterways.

The organisation said it was installing soft banks and reed fringes in canals to benefit species such as reed warblers. This has helped the population to recover after a dramatic decline of 10 per cent over a period of three years back in the 1970s.

The reed warbler arrives in Britain from wintering in Africa at around the end of March each year and leaves the country again at the end of September after spending a month fattening itself up for the long flight.

Leela O’Dea, ecologist at British Waterways, said: “Unlike common garden birds, which are much better at adapting to changes in their immediate environment, species such as reed warblers are totally dependent on their own unique habitats to ensure a thriving population.

“Better management of the waterways across England and Wales has seen the installation of soft banks and reeded fringes replace hard edges for the benefit of reed warblers and other species such as water voles, sand martins and kingfishers.”

Thanks to the ‘greening’ of the landscape around the Olympic site in East London, visitors and those living in the area will be able to enjoy more of the distinctive sound of the reed warbler, said Ms O’Dea.

“With populations of warblers already present on the River Lee, the work that is currently being done could see this traditional sound of a British summer be part of next year’s 2012 celebrations and a feature of the park after the games.”

Around 300,000 wetland plants, including reeds, rushes, grasses, sedges, wet wildflowers and irises have been planted on the banks of the park’s waterways.

There’s also good news for lovers of woodland birds. According to the trust two species – the greater spotted woodpecker and the nuthatch have both increased in population and spread northward.

“The nuthatch was confined to south of the border, but has now been spotted in Scotland,” says spokesman Paul Stancliffe.

“This has to be down to the change in the British climate. Although the last couple of winters have not been particularly mild, in general winters are getting warmer and summers have been fairly wet, providing more food for these birds.

“This has helped us to see an 84 per cent increase in the nuthatch over the last 25 years. Their beautiful blue, black and russet plumage can now be seen much more far and wide.

“In the same time span we’ve seen a 138 per cent increase in the greater spotted woodpecker, so watch out for it, with its black and white feathers and bright red undertail.”