Tits, tits, tits!

Coal, long tailed and great, that is, in case you were thinking the News of the World had reinvented itself in blog format! The reason I’ve dedicated a post to the tits is because they have been the most regular visitors to my feeders and on many days I’ve seen these four species there at the same time: blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus, Dansk: blåmejse), great tit (Parus major, Dansk musvit), coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse).

Two factors combined to make photographing the songbirds in my garden considerably more challenging than is customary. Long periods of murky wet weather meant that the light was rarely optimal, and secondly, very few birds came to the garden at all up until November, and even then not in the numbers that have visited in previous years. I think the reason for that may have been the relative abundance of food in the countryside due to the mild and wet conditions that prevailed in the summer and autumn which gave rise to an abundance of blackberries, haws, sloes, hips and other berries. Then after November the birds started to reappear but the light didn’t improve so I took photographs at ISO settings of 1000-2000 to get the requisite shutter speeds, which is higher than I would normally use because of the higher background noise. Despite that I got some nice images:

Coal tit looking for a meal on a murky morningCoal tit looking for breakfast on a cold foggy morning

The coal tit is distinguishable at a glance by the prominent white stripe on the nape of its neck. They’ve been regular but infrequent visitors to my garden in other years but in the last couple of months they’ve been coming in ones and twos every day. The tits are not always easy to capture because they usually feed by grabbing a seed or nut and then flying into the cover of an adjacent bush to eat it. But just occasionally they linger for long enough, as this coal tit did. They prefer coniferous woodland in the breeding season where they feed on spiders and insects and in wintertime they are also prevalent in towns when they will also feed on seeds. Their conservation status is green, they’re resident breeders in the UK and can be found across Europe and Asia and in Africa too.

Long tailed tits disobeying the cardiologist!Two of a small flock of long tailed tits

As with coal tits, the long tailed tit is also immediately recognisable. Seeing one almost invariably means there are more close by. They fly from A to B one at a time, each following the previous one by half a second or so and are usually in small flocks of 10 or a dozen. I often hear them before I see them as they chatter to each other as they’re on the move. They like to feed on the fat balls I hang out, as do the other tits, and there can be 3 or 4 there at the same time with several more in the adjacent bushes, waiting their turn. They’re very charming little birds and I’m looking forward to them visiting on a bright sunny day so I can get some better images. Like coal tits they are also woodland birds, found across Eurasia they are resident breeders in the UK and their conservation status is green.

Great tit preparing himself to launch onto the seed tray

Great tits are probably the most regular partakers of the fare provided by my feeders, and that’s no bad thing, they’re handsome birds. There are a pair, male and female, feeding on seeds as I write, and they’ve just been joined by a pair of blue tits. The great tit is one of the birds that put the ‘song‘ in songbird, my Collins guide describes them as having a ‘rich repertoire’ and I’ve read they have around 70 different vocalisations, which suggests highly complex vocal communication for a small bird.

The male above has a chunk of peanut between his toes which he is pecking from. He is distinguishable from the female by the width of his black breast stripe which reaches as far as his legs, and the female below who has a very thin stripe which tapers downwards, is nibbling at a fat ball. In the depths of winter small birds need to spend most of the day feeding because the majority of their energy intake is used to maintain body temperature. Birds as small as a coal tit, which weighs 8-10g, therefore spend virtually all day feeding just to stay warm and they can die of hypothermia very quickly on a wintry morning if they don’t find food within a short time of waking up. So as us humans have destroyed so much natural habitat, our gardens and feeding stations are an essential lifeline for many species of birds.

Great tits also have green conservation status, numbering 2 million in summer 2000 according to the British Trust for Ornithology. Other species which have put in an appearance are the wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte), blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk jernspurv) and a lone male blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) flew through on one occasion – one of our eastern European overwintering blackcaps. Early one dark foggy morning as I was replenishing the feeders I caught a small movement out the corner of my eye so I glanced round without moving my head and a wren sat around 3 feet away watching me. When I finished I stood and watched him and he just waited for me to leave before grabbing some breakfast. I found out recently that wrens are our commonest bird, which really surprised me, but then they are adaptable and aren’t restricted to one particular habitat. It’s nice to see them flitting around the garden in their perpetual search for insects to see them through the winter.

(N.b. I source my bird feed from Vine House Farm. I wouldn’t normally do a free plug but I really like what these people do. They work together with the Wildlife Trusts and they farm the land to produce bird feed in the most wildlife-friendly way they can, and they publish a free newsletter to update on progress and news from the farm. Their feed is not always the cheapest but I’ve always found it to be very high quality.)

38 responses to “Tits, tits, tits!

  1. I love birds and yours are just as lovely as the ones we welcome with our feeders!

  2. Great shots. Interesting what you say about the berries this year…I hadn’t realised there were so many, though now I come to think of it… I’ve been lurking by my feeders trying to get a good shot but with my camera and the light conditions they are all c**p !

    I’ve had all the tits, the long tailed are particularly fine, the coal tit is so lovely but infuriatingly brief are our encounters 😉 The busiest visitors this year are the gold finches and the nuthatch and I had quite a bit of excitement the other day when green finches and then bull finches arrived. The peanuts have proved popular with a woodpecker too. We’ve made a sparrow heaven with holes in the house so we’ve got hundreds of those, they are getting very busy!

    When we had the cold spell I found a dead goldcrest in our barn – it was SO tiny.

    Thanks for the link to the sounds.

    • You have a nice variety of birdlife in yuor garden, I haven’t seen a bullfinch in a garden since I was a kid. I’d love to see one in my garden here, I know they’re around the village but they’re not garden feeders. You’re lucky to have all those sparrows too, I wish I had somewhere to make into a home for them.

      • Do you think that loads of sparrows would put swallows off? Our swallow numbers have gone down year on year but there are also lots more cats in the vicinity and they prowl around and get up on stuff in the barns where the swallows nest. I think they are both quite aggressive species so not sure if it would be a problem. One year I used to get dive bombed by the swallows when I came out the front door, it was quite off putting! But also one of these big industrial farms has been buying up land around here and plouging up old pasture and reseeding with rye grass, so it may be a drop in insect numbers in general too.

      • I think a rowdy mob of squabbling sparrows may well have a deterrent effect on swallows trying to nest if they are in too close proximity. That and marauding cats definitely won’t help. Is your front door on the swallows’ flight path to the nest? I’d be surprised if they were being aggressive.

      • Hmm maybe, one pair did nest by the front door once. But they seem to do it quite a lot…we have a pond in the front yard and they swoop over that so maybe they think we’re interfering with that.

      • Could be, or maybe you’re just on the flight path, there’s a path where I walk my dog which has a 90 degree bend along one side of which the swallows hunt, and if I stand still at the apex they literally fly around my ears. I love watching them do that, and it’s good fun to try and photograph them, although not usually successful!

  3. The closest thing that we have to blue tits in this garden is a little blue tit that my cousin knitted for me 🙂

  4. I have to admit to raising a titter when I was browsing my email notifications and saw your title 🙂

    Your photographs are wonderful considering the dull conditions. I’m not sure I’ve seen a long-tailed tit before so it’s lovely seeing your photo. We have lots of blue tits around our garden and, actually today on my walk to work, I noticed a pair flying a figure of eight together in and out of a tall hedge. “Spring-like behaviour” I thought to myself! There has been quite an ‘8 in the morning’ dawn chorus going on the past couple of days too. All down to the very mild weather I guess.

    Many thanks for the link to the suppliers of bird feed; I shall check them out.

    • Tee hee! You’re the first person to comment on that – it gave me a puerile ‘Finbar Saunders‘ moment too 🙂

      There were five long tailed tits on the feeder when I got back from my outing this morning and the sun was shining on them, but my camera was in its bag so I didn’t try to photograph them as by the time I’d retrieved it they would have gone, and then I wouldn’t have had time to enjoy them myself. I was talking to another friend earlier about spring type behaviour, and if the weather remains as mild as this we should be in for some earlier than ususal birds-and-bees activity. If that happens fingewrs crossed it doesn’t turn cold again and stall everything. (If you do try out VHF let me know how you get on).

      • Looks as if it is going to turn cold this week. I’ve not only seen birds in Spring-like form, but also saw snowdrops and daffodils at ‘Harold Hillier’s’ today.

        Had to look up ‘Finbar Saunders’. Fnar fnar 🙂

      • I saw nascent leaf buds in the undergrowth today so I hope it doesn’t get too cold.

        I just Google’d ‘Finbarr Saunders’ to find an amusing riposte to your ‘F’narr, f’narr’ and I found something even better, check out this link ‘http://www.finbarrsaunders.com/Home.html’. I wonder if he knows he’s been immortalised in Viz 🙂

      • It might be best if he doesn’t find out; on the other hand, maybe he already knows and is cool with it 🙂

        Honestly, though, I feel as if I’m surrounded by all this innuendo at the moment. A chap came into my workplace on Monday full of suggestive comments (apparently he does this frequently: fnar, fnar). My boss and I both looked at each other, raised our eyes, shook our heads …….. and smiled. It reminded me very much of Sid James and the Carry On films. I mean, June Whitfield was in those, wasn’t she. Can’t have been bad 🙂

        Discovered via a t’internet search that ‘fnar fnar’ appears in OxfordDictionaries.com. It’s not in my hard copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary though. Some things are sacred 😉

      • I love the idea that ‘Fnarr fnarr’ could be in the OED 🙂

  5. PS I’m surprised that you say there was plenty of wild food for these birds in 2012’s summer. With the extreme weather, that’s not how I perceived it, but perhaps I’m wrong.

    • Despite the apparently crappy weather the warm and wet late summer and autumn gave rise to good supplies of blackberries and haws etc in the hedgerows. I don’t know if you harvested any blackberries this year but although there were masses of them, around here at least, they were a tad watery and didn’t have all the flavour they can have when they get that much more sunshine. But there have been plenty of berries out there.

      • Maybe it depended on the fruit species. My foraging days are over (thanks to the blasted MS) but we got bumper crops from some of the perennials on the allotment, including blackberries. We attributed that to the high rainfall, making the fruit swell. But as you know, there were plenty of gloomy reports like this one http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/0/19244461 mentioning the way rain limited the pollinators’ activity.

      • We really need to be looking after our pollinators. We’re buggered without them and they’re struggling as a result of poor countryside management. Will we learn before hunger forces us to wise up?

        How did your blackberries taste? Were they watery too, like ours?

      • I don’t know what yours were like (obviously!) but ours were just fine. Agree about the pollinators – there’s science going on at Leeds about them now.

      • That’s good to hear. I hope it’s a holistic approach and not a technical quick-fix based on making money for someone with little prospect of a longer term solution.

        The blackberries we picked were big and juicy but not particularly sweet or tasty – as though they were bloated with water. They would have benefited from another couple of months of photosynthesis

  6. What is green conservation status? Yes I could google it but I feel like asking you first.
    I’m glad to see that your great tits show no sign of the new strain of fowlpox.

    • Touch wood, so far the great tits appear to be in good health (which has reminded me that I must clean my bird feeders this weekend).

      The conservation status of a species is assigned by the Intenational Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as part of their ‘Red List‘ and provides a means of describing the degree of danger of extinction that a species faces. There are specific criteria for assigning a status as red, amber, green or ‘of least concern’, and green indicates a species is not in danger of extinction.

  7. Such wonderful little birds…. And what you say at the end is exceptional — about how critical and loving it is for us to provide feeding stations for these guys, since we’ve now destroyed so much of their natural habitat. Thanks for a wonderful post!!

    • You’re very welcome! A lot of the little birds are highly adaptable and can cope with a certain level of habitat destruction, but in my corner of the world it is so overcrowded with humans wrecking the joint that many species need all the help they can get. Fortunately though, lots of folk do help.

      • The more that people are aware… The more they’ll be helping! I recently learned of the hummingbirds’ plight, their lack of access to nectar (again, lack of suitable plants), and the sheer miles of their migration. Same with butterflies. And I saw others learning, too — and doing more to help, simply by providing access to feeders and/or plants. Doesn’t take much!

      • There’s the rub, it really doesn’t take much. It just needs enough folk to catch on and start helping. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to spread the word!

  8. Fascinating stuff, and wonderful pictures Finn, I don’t know how you manage to capture such good shots of these little chaps, they flit about so quickly. I think the long tailed tits are my favourite, they fill me with joy when I see them bunched up on a bird feeder, and it’s not that common an occurrence in my neck of the woods, which makes it extra special. I had no idea the Great Tit was such a complex communicator, it really is staggering to think they can produce so many different vocalisations.

    • Hello Lorna, I’m lucky with the long tailed tits as there are lots of them round here. Either that or the ones we have move around very quickly. They flit through my garden several times a day at the moment to replenish their energy supplies by nibbling the fat balls so I’m on tenterhooks waiting for a suny day!

  9. These are beautiful little birds. By their mannerisms, grabbing a bit of food and darting away instantly, and their appearance they must be in some way related to the Chickadees that we have here. At first glance the coal tit could be mistaken for our black-capped chickadee, which is my favorite of all the birds.

    • I also thought that your chickadee was very similar to our great tit and it transpires that the chickadees and tits are in several closely related genus’s (geni?) of the family ‘Paridae’ which seem to cover most of the world except South America and Australia. Delightful little fellas, one and all!

  10. What a beautiful way to start the new year, Finn! May the visitors to within the range of your lenses be many, varied, and willing to hold a pose for just long enough!

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