NATURE NOTES - Searching for ‘beardies’

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WE’RE just putting the finishing touches to a Reedbed Enhancement Plan for Pennington Flash so I thought it might not be a bad idea to share our ideas with the Guru of anything ‘reedy’ or ‘bitterny’ John Wilson.

John was an old RSPB colleague of – well too long ago to mention – and managed the RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss for around 30 years and during that time had major success getting bittern, bearded tit and marsh harrier to breed in the reedbed there. So after a chat about the proposals and a chat about old times we were sorted.

When I mentioned that I was going up to Leighton on Saturday morning ‘little ears’ were listening and I was soon ‘persuaded’ to take my young birding partner Tanith with me as John could probably help find some bearded tits for her while we were up there. Bearded tit was the only one of the tit family that she hadn’t seen. A visit to Abernethy Forest in Scotland this spring, we were lucky enough, after quite a search to find the other ‘rare’ member of the tit family, the Crested Tit, and watched them feeding for about an hour or so.

Any way back to ‘beardies’ John told us that they were now regularly turning up first thing at the ‘grit trays’ which were filled with a mixture of sharp sand and ‘pheasant grit’ so that’s where we headed. He told us of some German research that recorded the birds ‘eating’ around 600 grains of grit – but like in all things one ‘greedy beardie’ had been recorded consuming 850 grains!!

In the summer months Bearded Tits survive on a diet of mainly insects caught in the reedbed, which they also feed to their young.  However, in the winter, they have a ‘cunning plan’ with the disappearance of lots of the insects they feed on, instead of having to migrate like swifts, swallows and warblers do, they change their diet to eat the seeds of the reeds – clever eh? Because they don’t have teeth, they have to take in grit, like a chicken does, into their crop at the front, to help them to break up the seeds. By December they stop visiting the trays and it’s not known yet if the ‘autumn grit fill up’ lasts them till spring, but again the German research showed stomachs in autumn had an average of 609 grains; in spring this had dramatically dropped to an average of only 38 grains.

We wandered down to the grit feeders with John and after a wait of 40 minutes or so were rewarded with a pair of Bearded Tits appearing and starting to pick the small grains of grit from the trays. Beardies are really beautiful birds and their colourful plumage surprisingly helps camouflage them against the reeds.

So job done! Tanith now has seen all the members of the UK Tit family – not bad for a nine year old eh?