Blue Tits

Blue tit

Lovely scruffy little juvenile blue tit waiting for his turn

Blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) are very common birds.  They are one of the commonest birds in Britain, with over 15 million birds overwintering in the UK and about 3 1/2 million breeding pairs during the spring and summer.  There seem at time to be clouds of blue tits at the woods.  We have a large number of breeding blue tits using our 31 nest boxes as well as natural holes in our veteran oak, ash, willow and elder trees.

Despite being common, I love these little birds.  They have a wonderful perky nature, inquisitive, restless and bold.  They are almost always the first birds to a new feeder.  At times they buzz past my head to reach the feeders so close that I can feel the wind beneath their tiny wings.  When on the feeders they put up a good show against other much larger birds sharing the space.  Constantly on the move, fluffing their feathers against the cold, hanging upside down just because they can.  I could honestly sit and watch just blue tits all day.

This week I had the chance to spend a while watching and photographing these lovely little birds for a couple of hours and they didn’t disappoint.  Scruffy little juvenile birds not yet in their full colours were mixed in with seasoned veteran adults as they came in to the feeders, alongside the coal tits, great tits, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers, reed buntings, chaffinches and greenfinches.  The light was great, and I managed to snatch some nice pictures using the 400m

Blue tit on the feeder

Blue tit on the feeder – rather handsome.

Blue tit

Blue tit waiting for his turn

Blue tit fluffed up in the wind and cold

Blue tit fluffed up in the wind and cold

Blue tits in pecking order

The pecking order – the queue for the feeder.

m lens.

Murmurations

Murmuration

Murmuration

As a child, every night, I was able to watch a murmuration of starlings gathering over our local park and coming down to roost in the trees.  Starlings have declined in number to an almost catastrophic extent since then.  They are now a red-listed species – a species of bird that was once considered to be a pest when they gathered in huge numbers in our cities.  And what a wonderful word “murmuration” is!  A perfect description of the wonderful phenomenon of mass flight of starlings at dusk.  I have not seen a murmuration of starlings for many years.

Late afternoon at Middleton Lakes

Late afternoon at Middleton Lakes

Dusk at Middleton Lakes

Dusk at Middleton Lakes

So it was that I set out with my friend yesterday to the RSPB reserve at Middleton Lakes to follow up a report of a murmuration of starlings seen there the night before.  The weather was quite cold, but mercifully dry and relatively sunny with beautiful light over the wetland pools and reed beds.  There were plenty of mallard, black-headed gull and pheasant, and smaller numbers of teal, coot, heron, egret and tufted duck.  Small birds seen included the great tit, blue tit, coal tit, chaffinch, robin, wren and blackbird.

The murmuration starts to form..

The murmuration starts to form..

As dusk approached a few starlings would begin to fly over.  Groups of four or six, sometimes ten, and then thirty starlings would wheel over and disappear.  A larger group then arrived, joined with another group to make a formation of about 300 starlings, which then disappeared towards Kingsbury Water Park to our south.  We wondered if that was it, when a haze started to appear on the horizon and a much larger group arrived.  More groups, large and small, came in from all directions.  Suddenly there were about 3000 starlings, wheeling and swooping close to us, then peeling off and crossing the water towards the reed beds.  We thought they were going to roost, but they rose up again, and the display continued.

Murmuration

Murmuration

Murmuration

Murmuration starts to roost

Then, as suddenly as it started, a small strand of starlings began to fall down from the base of the flock, and in a few seconds they had all disappeared to roost in the reed beds.  A few stragglers came in and went straight to roost.  And it was over.  The first murmuration I have seen in years.  It was not the huge gathering of hundreds of thousands of birds sometimes seen at the coast, or the Somerset Levels, but it was impressive, beautiful and wild.  It is definitely worth visiting RSPB Middleton Lakes, be it to see the murmuration of starlings or simply to enjoy the scenery and the birds.  I will definitely be going back there.

Nature-watching

Common Wasp

Common wasp on angelica

I love birds.  And butterflies.  And dragonflies.  And reptiles.  And amphibians.  And wild flowers.  I keep records of the species I have seen, and am as excited as anybody when I see a new species for the first time.  Lots of people do this.  They go round collecting lists of things they have seen, some travelling long distances to get a “tick” on their list.

But I’m not a birder, twitcher or any other kind of highly-travelled collector of “ticks”.  My approach to wildlife watching is different.

Years ago, I would get in the car and set off whenever there was a report that a certain butterfly had emerged in a particular location, and head off to well-known bird-watching haunts to see species I had not seen before and were known to be there.  But I found this very unsatisfying.  There was no real connection with the creature I was viewing, no really deep understanding of this creature and its relationship to other species within the ecosystem in which it lived.  Likewise, I found wildlife-watching holidays, in which we were conveyed round in groups to look at wildlife for a brief moment before moving on to the next location to be rather empty.  So I’d seen bee-eaters, or flamingos, or hoopoes – so what?  How much did I really know about the habitat in which they lived, and why they were there, and what pressures they face, and how they behave, and what interactions they have with other creatures in the local area?  Not a lot, really.

Also, I have a weakness when it comes to being a birder, or other type of “collector” in that I actually like watching all birds, all butterflies, all dragonflies, all wildflowers.  They are all fascinating, common or rare, frequently seen or rarely viewed.  I find it endlessly fascinating to watch common little brown birds, just as I find it fascinating to watch a rare species.  I love to watch how they behave, how they interact, what they feed on, where they nest, and how they fit in with the other species in the habitat in which they live.  A knowledge of, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for collecting rarities on a list can be a wonderful way of getting people involved in nature-watching, and protecting our diminishing wild places, but it isn’t the way I like to enjoy nature.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock butterfly – common butterfly, common ragwort, but very worth watching

Baby Wren

Little brown bird – baby wren

For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is in knowing the habitat well, something that gives each sighting of a different species some meaning and context.  Obviously owning a woodland is a wonderful thing, and allows me to form a close and deep connection with the land, the trees, the plants, the insects, the birds, the bats and all the other creatures that choose to live there.  New species are exciting, not just because they are new, but because they represent the fact that the ecosystem can support them.  They are there because they want to be there, because the conditions are right for them to be there.

I also like wildlife watching whenever I travel elsewhere for business or pleasure.  Wherever I may fetch up, I like to watch what wildlife is there, and what it is doing.  I like to travel to nice places with diverse ecosystems, and enjoy walking in other woodlands, countryside, hills and valleys.  But nature-watching isn’t only about going somewhere that you know is going to be populated by spectacular wildlife.  It is about learning what you can about the local habitat and then seeing what is there in context.

This year we went to Doncaster for our business.  We stayed in a hotel in a very ordinary edge-of-town retail and leisure development.  And yet there was great wildlife there.  Early purple orchids by the edge of the ornamental lake.  Long-tailed tits in groups flitting through the young amenity trees by the chain restaurant in which we dined.  Pied wagtails in the hotel grounds.  Wildflowers growing in profusion in the as-yet-undeveloped areas around the edge of the development.

It didn’t matter that the wildflowers and birds were common.  What mattered was learning about, and enjoying, what the habitat had to offer, even a very “ordinary” urban-edge habitat on a brownfield site.

Great tit in the snow

Great tit in the snow – common, but beautiful

In short, I like to learn about whatever ecosystem I find myself in has to offer.  I am sure that some “tick-collectors” like to do this too, but my experience is that quite a few do not – the tick matters more than anything else.  Maybe at heart I am an ecologist, rather than a birdwatcher, butterfly-watcher, bat-fanatic or anything else.  For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is about taking the pulse of the land and becoming part of it, so you can understand it in depth, and appreciate everything that is there, from the common to the rare, the plain to the flamboyant and the drab to the colourful.  There is so much all around us all the time and that is what makes being a nature-watcher so exciting – provided you don’t mind your birds being small and brown, your butterflies being white, and your amphibians being common.  I don’t.  I enjoy watching them all.

Bird Photography using a Chair Hide


If, like me, you are keen on wildlife photography, or if you like just sitting and watching the birds and wildlife, then a small, portable hide can be really useful.  The question is which one to get, and are they any good?
I love photography, and in particular taking pictures of the birds and other wildlife in our woods.  Even with good long lenses, it is difficult to get close enough to the subjects without having to crop the images, thus losing definition and detail, even with the best of cameras and lenses.  With a good, fast 300mm lens from Canon or Nikon costing upwards of £5k, and longer lenses costing considerably more, the realistic solution for most of us is getting closer to the subject rather than buying a longer lens.
There are a wide variety of hides available.  You could build a semi-permanent hide using camo tarps and a wooden frame, or even from straw bales, and we considered this.  The problem is, at least in our woods, that the feeders are close to the building (for obvious reasons) and any semi-permanent structure is an invitation to people to come and do harm.   It also isn’t portable – but a lot of the birds don’t come to the feeders and we have to go to the birds, rather than having the birds come to us.  Many birds are territorial, so you have to be able to move around the different territories in the woods, particularly if one breeding pair has decided to nest in a location that is hard to photograph.
There are a range of portable pop-up hides available, similar to lightweight pop-up tents.  Although they are portable, unless your knees are made of steel, you will also need a chair to sit on to make use of them.  Added to the not-inconsiderable weight of photography gear (camera, lenses, tripod), this can make quite a burden.
So I ended up looking at the pop-up hides based around a chair or chairs.  Stealth Gear supply one-man and two-man hides.  The advantage of the latter is that you can either have somebody in there with you, or you have some extra space for your clobber.  But it is bigger and heavier and more complicated too, and since I am usually the only person who is daft enough to sit out in all weathers trying to get that one wonderful shot, I opted for the one-man hide, costing around £85 online.
The hide is based on a standard folding canvas chair, with canvas arms and the usual drink holder in one of the arms.  To this has been attached a clever folding canopy, which can be unfolded a bit like a slinky toy to give a chair with a camouflage covering.  In the covering are various windows of varying sizes.  Each window is covered with camo netting, so you can observe without being seen.  The window can also be unzipped to allow you to poke out a lens, binoculars (or even an air rifle if you are after rabbits or squirrels). The front also unzips to give a much larger field of view, but with the disadvantage that you are much more visible.  The canopy can be pinned down with tent pegs to minimise flapping, reduce drafts (very important in winter!) and stop it blowing away. The lower front opens to allow you to crawl in, but I have found it easier to flip the front up, sit down, then pull the front back down again and secure the pegs from the inside.
It isn’t completely waterproof – there are little gaps here and there where the zips have been stitched in – but it is a million times better than standing out in the open, or trying to stand under a camo net or tarp that you have erected yourself.  It is pretty windproof unless you open the windows, although there is a bit of a draft underneath, which can make it pretty cold around the feet and your bottom after a while.
The chair is quite small – you wouldn’t want to be a very well-built person – but large enough.  I am only 5ft 2ins, but it seems to have enough room for my husband who is larger.  However you can’t store stuff underneath it, so you need the room at the front of the hide to put your camera bag down.  The problem with that is when you use a conventional tripod, there isn’t a lot of room for the tripod, your feet, your camera bag and a nice flask and box of sandwiches.  I have switched to using a smaller tripod that has a large central column and takes less floor area (made by 3-Legged Thing), and this is great – I have room for my feet, a camera bag and my lunch.
So are the birds fooled by it?  Amazingly, yes, provided you have sited it such that the camouflage works.  Set it against the light, and it will be a looming object that the birds don’t like.  Set it into an existing bush, or so that the light shines onto it from the perspective of the bird, and it blends in surprisingly well.  Indeed, I have had a robin sitting on top, singing away (quite deafening), and lots of blue tits and great tits perching on top of the hide too.  It is worth putting the hide up a little while before you go into it, so the birds can get used to it.
You DO have to keep quite still.  This means largely keeping your hands on the camera for the birds can see your hands move rapidly up to the camera if something interesting comes along.  You have to move slowly, and not swing the camera too quickly either.  Opening the side windows also lets light in, and lets the birds see you, so it isn’t a bad idea to wear camo gear inside the hide.  Keeping still inevitably means you get cold, and in the winter I took to wearing ski gear to keep warm (as well as a flask of coffee).  I also found that a gimbal or ball-and-socket head on the tripod was much easier to control than a standard pan and tilt head as you made less in the way of movements of your hands.
And when you want to move, it folds up and clips together such that it fits into a bag that you can carry like a rucksack.
And it works.  It is a relatively cheap way of getting closer to your subject, massively cheaper than buying a long prime lens, and massively more convenient than making your own.  You are somewhat limited in the viewpoint you take (all your pictures are from sitting height).  You definitely get much closer than you can just sitting there with your telephoto lens on the camera.  Indeed, I have been too close on occasion, a few birds coming within the minimum focal distance of my lens (1.8 metres).   It may or may not be robust – I have yet to use it for a whole year, so can’t comment on that – but I think it has already proved its value.
Some tips for taking good photographs from the hide
  1.  Site the hide about an hour before you get in it to let the birds get used to it.
  2. Site the hide where it blends in, and doesn’t give a looming presence from the perspective of the birds.
  3. Try and site the hide where there is a good background (not too confused), and where the lighting is good (I find side or sometimes back lighting is good for getting definition on the bird’s feathers, rather than flat straight-on sunlight)
  4. Go for places where there are birds (do your homework).  Either where you know birds are hanging out or alternatively put up feeders.  If you do the latter, you will find it almost embarrassingly easy to take pictures of birds on feeders.  Try and observe where the birds are approaching from and what intermediate perches they are using.  Then you can get pictures of them on the way to or from the feeder, in a more natural setting.
  5. Use a good tripod with a ball or gimbal head.  A gimbal head allows you to move the camera naturally as if you were holding it by hand, but provides all the support you need, at least up to 400mm.
  6. Unless your camera has very good autofocus, go for manual focus and pre-focus on the favoured perches.
  7. Use exposure compensation – your birds will often be backlit, or appear against a bright sky, and you will need to over-expose by usually 1 to 1 1/3 stops to avoid the birds appearing as dark little bird-shaped silhouettes.  Learn how to use this feature on your camera without looking at the controls.  You won’t always be able to check the exposure on the screen, so use a best guess or bracket the exposures.
  8. Try and get the birds doing something interesting:  fighting, flying in or out, in a natural pose (such as the head-down pose of the nuthatch), about to take off, with a seed in their beak , or even with a dynamic pose or interesting expression.
  9. Enjoy the common birds as well as the rare ones and take lots of photos of them – that way you will get use to photography in the hide, and won’t mess up when the rare bird makes a fleeting appearance.  I must have taken thousands of photos of blue tits, but I love these little birds, and could watch them all day.  It means when a reed bunting, or yellowhammer, or willow tit flies in I’m on the ball and used to taking photos, and can get a decent result, rather than an over-excited, under-exposed blur.
The photos in this article were all taken in a single afternoon using a Canon EOS5D Mk III with 100-400 zoom lens, and a Three Legged Thing tripod with ball head.  Before buying the hide, it would take weeks to get just one shot as good as some of these.  My verdict – if you like your photography it is worth the money.

Observations on Bird Feeders

Nuthatch

It has been a bit of a birdy week at the woods this week, having completed a review of our nest boxes (all the hole-fronted ones were used last year, although one of the 26 had an incomplete nest), and got some new kit for photographing birds (a chair hide and gimbal head for my tripod).  I set up my hide near the feeders, waiting to the birds to approach, and got to making a few observations about the behaviour of the birds on the feeders.

Great Tit

We have three feeders at the woods, all a short distance from the building (within 15 metres either side).  They all have the same feed in – a wild bird seed mix which is the best that I can afford as they get through over 20kg a week.  But despite the similarity of the feeders (all have the same perch design), and their contents, it is clear that some birds prefer one or other of the feeders.  The great tits prefer the smaller feeder further from the building, near a clump of brambles in which they can perch;  the blue tits perfer one of the larger feeders near an elder bush in which they can perch, and the nuthatches and great-spotted woodpeckers prefer the very large feeder which they can approach from the trunk of the adjacent tree.  Pheasants, robins and chaffinches are happy to feed underneath any of the feeders.

I also noticed that birds tend to come in waves to the feeders.  There can pass minutes when there are no birds, and then there is a huge flurry of birds, fluttering their little wings, bickering about who has first dibs and generally making the area come alive with up to 20 birds all vying for a slot on the feeding perches.  Then they disappear and it goes quiet, before it all starts up again.  I wondered why that should be.  The flurry seems to be a mix of species, rather than all one or another, and I figured it was probably a form of collective defence;  safety in numbers, more birds around to sound the sparrowhawk alarm, and more birds to confuse the predator should it appear.

Blue Tit

The species also differ greatly in their competence on the feeder;  blue tits, coal tits and great tits are pretty good at perching and grabbing seeds, as are nuthatches.  Woodpeckers need a little bit of practice, but can manage pretty well.  Robins and chaffinches often try but rarely succeed in working out how to perch on the little ring provided to get at the seed.  It isn’t a size thing – yellowhammer are hopeless at perching, reed bunting pretty good, both birds pretty much the same size, both in the bunting family, similar beaks – one good, the other useless!

We are all familiar with the pecking-order that occurs within species; our chickens have a complicated but rather rigid pecking-order and wild birds seem to be the same.  So, the larger, more dominant great-tits and blue-tits are easily able to see off their rivals, with the males usually seeing off the females at this time of year before pairing-off and looking for nests.

Coal Tit

What is interesting, though, is that there seems to be a between-species pecking order too.  When the nuthatch or great-spotted woodpecker is on the feeder, nobody else really wants to feed there, although they are waiting patiently in the wings.  They are just too aggressive and probably a bit pecky with those sharp beaks – too much of a risk!  But it doesn’t always go with size.  The blue-tits generally oust the great-tits despite being smaller, probably because the great-tits are a bit more timid.  The robins, notoriously aggressive birds, don’t seem to mind other birds being around them at all, and never seem to have a go at them, even though they are competing under the feeders with the chaffinches and pheasants for the fallen scraps.  Chaffinches are even more timid relative to their size, flying off at the slightest provocation.  But the outstanding winners of aggression-per-gram must go to the coal tits.  They are so fast, so active on the feeder and so very tenacious with birds of all sizes when there is competition for a feeding hole.  They dart in, grab a seed, and dash off to peck it on a perch, then back in again, taking on all-comers (although I haven’t seen one take on a woodpecker yet…).

Robin

Perhaps we get a little bit complacent at witnessing this common sight – little birds at a feeder.  But I never tire of watching them.  There is always something going on, always a collection of little noises, expressions and body language to watch.  I never tire of watching the huge range of expressions that blue-tits seem to be able to summon-up.  Feeding the birds is an opportunity to watch and learn about common species and the interaction between them.  It is one of my favourite activities at the woods.