November 2018: Nature Watch

October 26 2018

At this time of year many of our smaller garden birds are on the move.

 There is safety in numbers and so they join up - great tits, blue tits, perhaps a few goldcrests - and search for winter food together. Having your friends and family around you makes it much harder for a predator to take you by surprise. At any particular moment one or two birds in the flock will be on the look out, they even use a particular sound – an alarm call – to warn the rest of the flock when they notice a potential danger. Another advantage of flocking is that it becomes easier to find good feeding areas and a flock on the move will stay in contact with each other using special flight calls.

It is always a pleasure to find a feeding flock of this kind and the liveliest and noisiest groups are those that include long-tailed. You know they’re coming from their wide variety of trilling and whistling calls. Listen out for a soft  “chwrrrr” or “ttwrrrr “ either coming from shrubs as they feed or from overhead as they search for their next meal. The birds are unmistakeable – an almost spherical ball of pale fluffy feathers with a black bar over the eye and through the wing. Their distinctive tail is clearly longer than their tiny body. They weigh barely 10g but they are full of bounding energy as they dip and dart around our gardens. They hang upside down with easy grace, working their tiny beak into nooks and crannies to winkle out over-wintering insects. These lovely creatures help to keep our garden pests under control and will also come to feeders, liking peanuts and fat balls in particular.

Long-tailed tits maintain close family ties: if they fail to mate successfully they will act as nest helpers to a sibling, working to raise their nephews and nieces and spending the following winter in the family flock. With this sort of help a successful pair can raise a brood of around 12 babies. 

It is hard for us to imagine building an ordinary open nest, using only your stubby little beak, let alone a beautifully domed construction, lined with tiny feathers, complete with a neat entrance hole and carefully finished with lichen for camouflage. Long-tailed tits do all this, but there is more. Given such a large brood you can imagine that space becomes tight as the babies grow (like most of our garden birds, the babies will not leave the nest until they are fully grown). This clever natural architect has a special technique to solve the space problem. They weave into their nests a good amount of spider silk which is an elastic material; as their babies expand the nest expands with them!

So much is going on in the lives of these miniature birds, good luck in seeing some of them at your feeders this month.