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.

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.

True wealth

What is wealth?  GDP?  Per Capita GDP?  GDP growth?  Balance of trade?  A particular income?  A particular lifestyle?  Bling?  We are conditioned to think of wealth in terms of economic wealth, the stuff we own.  Having stuff is nice.  It makes life easier.

However, there is another kind of wealth – and it is something we can experience for free, any day of the week, almost everywhere.  Nature is incredibly rich in beauty and diversity.  Some of my most amazing experiences have come in natural places.

So it was that I was walking around our woods yesterday.  In the space of about 90 minutes, I was privileged to see and photograph a nuthatch feeding her chicks, a kestrel with prey being chided by a blackbird, a brimstone butterfly exploring the new buckthorn bushes we planted this winter, and an unbelievably cute pair of tawny owl chicks dozing in the summer sunshine.  Then there were the things I heard and didn’t manage to photograph – the chatter of the nesting blue tits and great tits, the jackdaws, the blackcaps and their lovely scratchy song, the chiffchaffs, the great spotted and green woodpeckers, the nuthatches and treecreepers, the angry wrens, the stealth voles, and rabbits, and muntjac deer, a glimpse of the fox.  Then there are the things I didn’t see, or pay much attention to, but upon which all of these other species depend – the beetles, bugs, flies, larvae, other insects, lichens and moss, leaf litter, grasses and sedges, reeds and rushes, bark and logs, the fungi and flowers, including our beautiful bluebells, coming to their best right now.

In our tiny little patch of land, just 20 acres, there was so much wealth it was brimming over – so much I couldn’t even see it all, or take it in.  And that is just 20 acres, on just one day, in just one place.

Even in the town, in our little garden, we have nesting sparrows stripping the pampas grass for their nests, busy blue tits taking bugs from the crab apple tree, in which we also have woodpigeon making a rather poor attempt at nesting.  I see collared doves, long tailed tits, greenfinch, goldfinch, mallard, herons, buzzards…and that is just in the garden, and just the birds.  There is a lot of other stuff too.

A recent visit to the woods by a beetle and bug expert in foul weather revealed nearly 40 species of beetle and bug.  FORTY species – and most of them I had never seen.  In better weather, on another day, there may well be many more.

All around us are amazing things, in amazing places, one of which is our lovely ancient woodland. What is sad is that so few people now get the chance to experience a truly rich habitat like this.  Woodland is destroyed, trees chopped down, and although planting new trees can be good, and in time will produce habitats for many creatures, it can never reproduce the wealth that has been developed over hundreds, or thousands of years, in these special places.

The Transport Secretary recently suggested that ancient woodlands could be dug up and moved to make way for HS2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-17867138 – a statement that betrays a lack of understanding of the difference between a truly rich, wealthy habitat, and an also-ran.  We need a lot more also-ran habitats, a lot more woodlands, heathlands, grasslands, hedgerows and new ponds – but we must preserve the true gems that we also possess.  This doesn’t mean that they should be monuments, devoid of human activity or life.  Indeed, human activity has shaped these habitats, and sustainable management of these woods by coppicing is instrumental in providing a truly rich habitat.  But it does mean that they should not be destroyed.

Just spend a day in one of these rich places with somebody who knows what to look for, and you will be astounded at what is there, right on our doorsteps, completely for free.  Perhaps that is the problem – this wealth is not monetary wealth, and we don’t usually have to pay to enjoy it.  So we don’t value it in the same way as we value our stuff.  Until, eventually, it isn’t there any more.  By which time we have become conditioned to an impoverished existence, devoid of the wealth the nature has to offer.  How very sad that would be.  Nature is treasure of the highest order.  It is true wealth and upon it all other types of wealth depend.  I hope we learn this before it is all gone.