Hanging Around

With several species of garden bird in decline, Wendy Carter of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust offers a guide to tits and crests. Nurture them this winter and you’ll be rewarded with a garden full of colour.

“Hello, hello, I’m here, I’m here, come on, come on...” Listen closely and you’ll find this is the sound of a flock of tits and crests moving through the trees during winter.

 

For protection, food-finding and warmth, these small birds often hang around together at this time of year. Long-tailed tits, in particular, tend to move as extended family parties and will often pick up other birds along their feeding routes. If you take a walk in your local park or through woodland this winter keep an ear out for the constant contact calls that betray their presence. Find a flock and you can be sure that behind the acrobatic jumble of feathers, there’s a whole world to discover.

 

Most tits and crests are small and plump - they’re primarily insect-eaters, whether spiderhunters or caterpillar-nibblers. As with all birds, however, winter forces them into finding alternative food so during colder months any seeds on your birdtable will become much more appealing to them and high energy fat and nuts even more so. So how can we begin to distinguish one from another and what are their various habits?

 

Blue tit

Blue tits are one of our most familiar and best-loved British birds, with a distinct trilling song which goes ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’. In my house, we’ve dubbed them the bandits of the garden world because of the distinct black eye mask that runs across their otherwise white-feathered faces.

 

With their royal blue crowns, lemon undercarriage and green blue wings, they are easy to spot. For many of us they will also be the smallest visitors to our garden but that doesn’t make them the meekest! Although they’ll sometimes be found deferring to bigger birds vying for space on feeders, they’ll usually give as good as they get. They’re known to adore peanuts and are also famed for breaking the foil off milk bottles and feeding on the creamy top.

 

When it comes to parenting their young blue tits can also be feisty, often hissing and pecking when protecting their nests from any form of threat.

 

With some birds, it’s relatively easy to tell the males from females but with blue tits it’s tricky. Recent research has shown that the naked human eye struggles to see the brighter blue colours of the male birds. However, if you were to study a male and a female blue tit side by side under a ultraviolet light the difference is apparently remarkable, the blue crown of the male being much more vivid than that of the female.

 

Great tit

When I compare two static photos of a blue tit and a great tit, it’s obvious that they’re completely different yet, in real life, when they’re moving within a tree at home, it sometimes seems more difficult than it should be to tell which is which. So what are the clues?

 

Remember that blue tits are, well, blue, and vividly so, particularly on the crown.

 

Great tits, on the other hand, have a glossy black cap, are much bigger and much darker overall. Their deep egg-yellow breast has a broad black mark running down the centre of it, shaped almost like an inverted diamond. It’s this that you can also use to distinguish the sexes; in males the band is thicker and reaches further down between the legs than it does in females.

 

On sunny winter days, especially in late January and February, male great tits will often be one of the first birds you can hear laying claim to territory and yelling their presence to any females within hearing distance. Their spring call sounds a bit like ‘teach-er teach-er teach-er’ or some say a bicycle pump or even a squeaky wheelbarrow!

 

Coal tit

Coal tits aren’t quite as flamboyant as their garden cousins - they’re grey on top and their undercarriage is buff rather than citrus or egg yellow. With them, the vivid coloured wings of blue and great tits are replaced by duller grey tones – but they’re still beautiful birds with glossy black crowns and ‘beards’. Listen out for their unique song which sounds like a repetition of the phrases: 'situi' and 'tsevi'.

 

Coal tits are similar in appearance to the woodland dwelling marsh tit and much rarer willow tit but their white wingbars and the flash of white in the black of their crown gives the game away when you’re trying to work out which is which (marsh and willow tits have plain wings and pure black caps).

 

For me, coal tits represent one of the great conundrums of the bird watching world which is why certain species seem to prefer other people’s gardens, no matter how hard you try to attract them.

 

For eight or nine years now, I’ve been completing a weekly bird count for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Bird Watch scheme. In all that time, I’ve only recorded a coal tit in my garden once or twice yet I know plenty of Worcestershire residents who have regular coal tit visitors. Some people are even successful in attracting them to nest in a bird box rather than the usual hole in a tree.

 

I can’t work it out. Coal tits are traditionally birds of coniferous woodland and there are conifers in my garden and those of my neighbours. But there is still so much we have to learn about the bird world so, for now, I console myself with the idea that the features of the surrounding landscape just aren’t quite right for them.

 

Long-tailed tit

The local name for these gorgeous little bundles of feathers is mumruffins (if anyone knows why, I’d love to hear from you) but they’re also called lotties for short, or lollipops because their long tails make them look a little like a lollipop on a stick.

 

With incredibly long tails for their body size, their name says it all. Together with a beautiful combination of pinkish, white and black feathers, these tits are perhaps the easiest of all to recognise. With a quick flick of their tail that helps them keep their balance, they seem to be constantly moving. I have a flock that regularly visits my garden and they’re so hard to count because they simply never stop darting about.

 

A couple of years ago I had the great privilege of observing a pair of long-tailed tits building their nest. I spotted them repeatedly going in and out of a gorse bush on the edge of woodlands so I sat quietly, some way back, and watched through binoculars. They were bringing back feathers, moss and lichen together with spider webs that seemed to be used to glue the whole domed construction together. It’s thought that they line their nests with feathers, using as many as 1,500 to make a sumptuously soft bed for the eight to twelve eggs the females lays.

 

It’s always worth looking out for repeated activity in one spot of your garden; had I not seen this pair coming and going, again and again, I would never have spotted their nest as it was so well hidden.

 

Goldcrest

Goldcrests are rarely seen in gardens but can often be found with tit flocks following a feeding circuit in winter; all the birds involved will be constantly calling to one another as previously described, presumably as a headcount.

 

These small birds – about half the size of a wren and weighing only about the same as a 10p coin – are an attractive blend of moss greens and buffs with a striking golden crest set in black on their crowns. This crest is mostly hidden but can be raised by birds in alarm, anger or courtship and it’s certainly worth looking out for. I’ve only ever seen a raised crest once and it’s a sight to behold!

 

During winter, our resident goldcrest numbers are swelled by those from the continent; these tiny birds rely almost entirely on insects for their food so, as it gets colder elsewhere in Europe, they head for Britain’s milder climes.

 

Your best chance of seeing goldcrests in good numbers is by heading to the east coast so during autumn I like to take a trip to see them arrive on easterly winds from Scandinavia and further north and east. It amazes me that Europe’s tiniest bird is one of the many species that makes this immense journey - on my various trips I’ve seen bushes full of them looking for food after a long and tiring flight.

 

Their stamina is also renowned during breeding for although it’s our smallest songbird, the goldcrest can lay up to twelve eggs in a clutch, which is about one and a half times the adult female's bodyweight.

 

Firecrest

Close cousins of the goldcrest, firecrests (pictured on the previous page) are more scarce. As with goldcrests, the UK population of firecrests increases during the colder months with arrivals from the continent. Unlike goldcrests who breed in gardens across the UK, (usually nesting in conifers) only small numbers of firecrests will reproduce here.

 

Although they are rare, it’s certainly worth looking out for firecrests this winter as record numbers are reported to have arrived on our south coast.

 

So how do you distinguish the two? Both are tiny and their colourings are similar but rather than having an ‘open’ face, firecrests have a clear black stripe across their eye which is lined with white above it, giving them a unique look.

 

Almost incredibly, I’ve heard stories in wildlife circles of goldcrests hitching rides on the backs of larger birds during their marathon migration to the UK … I’d absolutely love to know if it’s true!

 

How to encourage birds

Over the past 50 years, the decline in many of our 'common' garden birds means several are now ‘red listed’ as species of extreme concern. No-one knows the reasons for this for sure but changing agricultural practices and a lack of food have taken their toll.

 

Feeding the birds in your garden throughout the year can really help. By putting out a range of food and water in different locations, you could attract up to 50 species. Good bird foods to try include suet, sunflower seeds, unsalted peanuts, mealworms and coconut halves. You can also put out scraps of baked potato, oats, sultanas, currants and raisins, pieces of apple, uncooked pastry or mild grated cheese.

 

Find more ways to encourage birds to your garden by browsing our website and downloading our free factsheets including Feeding Garden Birds and Bird Boxes at:
www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/gardening-factsheets

 

 

WWT winter events include:

 

• Sat 2nd & Sun 3rd December 10am-1pm.

Log & Wood Chip sales at Tiddesley Wood, Pershore

 

• Thur 7th December, 7.30pm

A Flutter in the Hills – the Butterflies of the Malverns. Lyttelton Rooms, Malvern, £2.50

 

Sat 9th December, 10-12noon

Christmas Wreath Making for families at Lower Smite Farm. Booking essential, £10 per family.

 

Tue 12th December, 7.30pm

A Fascination with Snails. Wulstans Hall, Pershore, £2.50

 

Wed 13th December, 7.30pm

Confessions of a Teenage Skull Collector. Bishop Allenby Hall, Worcester, £2.50

 

Thur 4th January 7.30pm

Pine Marten Recovery in Wales. Lyttelton Rooms, Malvern, £2.50

 

Sat 6th & Sun 7th January 10am-1pm

Log & Wood Chip sales at Tiddesley Wood, Pershore

 

Thur 1st February, 7.30pm

The Flora of Herefordshire. Lyttelton Rooms, Malvern, £2.50

 

Sat 3rd & Sun 4th February 10am-1pm

Log & Wood Chip sales at Tiddesley Wood, Pershore

 

Wed 21st Februry, 7.30pm

Nature Conservation & the Urban Development. Bishop Allenby Hall, Worcester, £2.50

 

Thur 22nd February, 7.30pm

Bees, Plants and their Environment. Wulstans Hall, Pershore, £2.50

 

For full details of events visit www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/whats-on For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT

 

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk

Tel: 01905 754919

 

 

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