Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bandits in the Bulrushes 24th March 2015

Clackers and myself had, last week, made an abortive trip to Devon with the primary motivation being a pair of Penduline Tits, residing in some bulrushes surrounding a small pond that formed part of the RSPB's Darts Farm Reserve near Exmouth, which is attached to a large upmarket Outdoor Clothing Centre and contains the RSPB Visitor Centre, plus a huge farm shop, delicatessen and cafe.

We failed to see the tits that day even though waiting for the best part of a whole morning and indeed subsequent reports evidenced they never showed up at all that day. Much to our chagrin the reports every day since told us they were being seen daily and not only that but being seen very well for extended periods.

This was galling to put it mildly. True, on our abortive visit we had gone on to see some Cirl Buntings but the Penduline Tits had been our primary objective and now the metaphorical salt was being rubbed into the minor wounds to our pride and competitiveness. I resigned myself to this being one of those things that all birders occasionally suffer. It happens to all of us from time to time. Birds are unpredictable, not beholden to our constraints and desires and every so often one has to accept that things will not go according to plan. In popular twitching parlance this is called 'dipping'.

Monday and Tuesday of this week were a joy. Sunshine accompanied by a chilly light wind brought Spring to my door and senses, and life suddenly took on an extra impetus.  I was sat at my computer on Tuesday morning at around eight o' clock dealing with some work emails when a thought came to me. A moment of spontaneity. There were no constraints so why not? Let's give it another go. The lack of Penduline Tits had been rankling with me all week and the beautiful morning before me urged me to get out and about and do something about it.

I finished my emails and called Clackers just before nine to tell him I was going back for another go at the tits if he was interested in coming. I half expected him to decline at such short notice but no, he was definitely interested but was currently birding his local patch at Rushy Common near Witney. 

We arranged to meet at his home in around forty five minutes time and then after our rendezvous headed west down the sunny roads towards Exmouth. The long and tedious M5 inflicted its usual frustrating Average Speed Checks as we left the outskirts of both Bristol and Taunton but at least the traffic was relatively light as we were travelling after the rush hour.

Well into Somerset, near Bridgewater, we passed the Willow or Wicker Man, created by the sculptress Serena de la Hey to celebrate The Millenium, the sculpture looming huge beside the northbound carriageway of the Motorway and forever caught in full stride heading West. 

When it first appeared it filled me with a sense of awe and wonder. A living sculpture, standing forty feet tall, heroic and diminishing the hurtling traffic on the Motorway, transcending the mundane and visiting an almost spiritual moment on me and possibly on others who passed on their car journeys, bound to the tedium of work and human existence. Then, the sculpture was surrounded by open fields and the only man made edifice impacting on the scene was the Motorway but now the Wicker Man is surrounded on both sides by a new housing estate and on the other by a huge Morrisons Logistics Centre and his majesty and mystery are gone forever, subsumed by encroaching human artefacts and brought low as a consequence. As I drove onwards I mused that this situation is almost an allegory for the direction life is moving in this land and the world in general. Not good. Not good at all

I fell silent for a while, contemplative and slightly deflated by the diminishing of the Wicker Man but eventually after driving past miles of deserted cones guarding a non existent workforce we thankfully came to our turnoff from the Motorway and I concentrated on completing the subsequent short distance to Darts Farm. 

A brief stop at the Outdoor Centre for a loo break and then we knew exactly where to go from our previous visit and took the stony track to the Reserve's small car park, before walking a short way to the pond. Around ten or so birders were already there, most with cameras and we could see they were looking at something. Clackers put on a surprising burst of speed and I followed. Would our gamble pay off this time? We joined the others and there, tiny and beautifully camouflaged in the bulrushes were the two Penduline Tits. We had done it.

At first the tits remained at some distance across the pond, feeding on the fluffy tops of the bulrushes.They were both females, so not quite so brightly coloured as a male but still very attractive with their grey heads, black highwayman's mask and chestnut backs. Surprisingly inconspicuous amongst the beige dead stalks and frothy candyfloss plumes of the bulrushes they were often almost obscured by the fluff as they searched the bulrush heads for what we assumed were seeds but subsequently learned were small grubs. 

As can be seen the tits were extracting small grubs from the
heads of the bulrushes. I only deduced this once I had time
to examine my photos in detail back at home
Vigorously they would tear away the fluff so that clouds of it would sail away in the wind and this was often a good way to locate them. Dwarfed against the fat velvety brown bulrush heads they fed avidly before dropping low into the tangle of bent dead leaves below to have a quiet moment, sheltered from the wind and to indulge in some preening. Then it was back to the serious business of feeding.

This went on for about forty five minutes before, suddenly, one flew to the Blackthorn bushes close to us, now in their full glory of white flowered bounty and commenced hopping amongst the twigs and flower heads feeding on we knew not what. Clackers postulated that maybe they were seeking liquid or sap at the base of the flowerheads and shoots.There again maybe they were seeking invertebrates just as they did on the bulrush heads 

The Penduline Tits were now very close to us. No more than seven or eight feet away at times. Every detail of their plumage was immediately evident as were their tiny tack like pointed bills. The bird still in the bulrushes started calling to its companion, a thin almost imperceptible, repetitive seeeeeeeeee seeeeeeeeee and the other responded, resulting in the other bird also flying to the Blackthorn. It was a struggle trying to photograph them as they nimbly threaded their way through the tangle of twigs, flowers and leaf buds but occasionally they would show themselves without a twig or flower obstructing them. We all watched, enthralled. They in turn seemed totally unphased by our close proximity and just carried on with their activities.

Apart from the aesthetic joys of watching two rare and beautiful birds it was instructive to watch their behaviour. They acrobatically foraged through the twigs, ensuring they always maintained loose contact with each other. They appeared unhurried, indulging in regular bouts of preening and there were occasions when they both would just stop, sitting silent and still, almost as if taking time out to consider their situation before recommencing feeding and picking at the branches. In the Blackthorn they did not display the hyperactive behaviour of Great and Blue Tits, both of which also visited the Blackthorn nor were they intimidated by a feisty Robin. 

Eventually they flew back to the bulrushes and energetically began stripping the fluffy heads or dropping down the stems to prise open the brittle outer casing in search of sustenance within. 

We had arrived at eleven thirty and now it was almost two in the afternoon. Time had seemed to slip by un-noticed as we watched the tits. Now I gestured to Clackers. Enough? I silently queried. He nodded in assent. We headed back to the car. 'I feel we should indulge in tea and cake Clackers.'  'Splendid idea'. So we repaired to the cafe and did just that.

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