We’re on a mission to see a bird I’ve wanted to see since childhood, but never seen. The Puffin Whisperer wants to see a Basettino and I want to see a Bearded Reedling. They’re the same thing. My understanding of their Italian name is that Basettino means ‘mutton-chops’; that’s facial hair across the cheeks.
You can see why, when this is what they look like, according to John Gerrard Keulemans:
And here’s what they looked like to me as a 12 year old, as I drew one from a book and fantasised about seeing one. I never did.
We drive to RSPB Radipole in Weymouth with our hopes high, and see one straight away, outrageously close in the reed-bed next to us.
It’s a male, with the characteristic blue-grey head. Sadly, it’s also got feathers missing from its head and a significant bald patch. Hopefully, that’s temporary and it gets back to full health soon.
It’s beautiful and a little bit scrappy.
Luckily we hear a distinctive call, like a ‘ping’ from the reeds and another male arrives.
Then more arrive. There are a few comedy moments as they jump-climb the reeds and, as they approach the seed-head at the top, and we anticipate getting the perfect shot, the reeds bend and the birds disappear back deep into the reed-bed again.
Bearded Reedlings undergo the most incredible internal transition. In the summer they feed on reed aphids, including feeding their chicks on the insects, too. Insects are essential for proper brain growth of healthy chicks. In the winter they feed on reed seeds. The ability to process and digest such diametrically opposed foods is a spectacular transition. It must involve significant chemical and bacterial changes in gut function.
We get great views of a female, too:
What a fabulous experience.
We’ve seen them, at last, mutton-chops and all.