Monday, 20 January 2020

Four Bearded Tits in Dorset 19th January 2020


In February last year Moth and myself drove to the RSPB's Radipole Lake Reserve which lies right in the heart of the busy town of Weymouth in Dorset. Our specific purpose was to see Bearded Tits which are found in the extensive beds of Phragmites (Common Reed) that are the main habitat feature of this reserve.

Radipole Lake, incorporating the River Wey, covers eighty three hectares. It is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and is owned by Weymouth and Portland Council but has been managed by the RSPB since 1976.

During this preceding week I kept an eye on the forecast and saw that the coming weekend was to be very cold but with the sun shining all day on both Saturday and Sunday. A very pleasant change from a week of wind, rain and general gloom. I began to think the weekend would be a good time to go back to Radipole, as watching and photographing Bearded Tits in the sunshine would be an uplifting day out.

Co-incidentally Moth contacted me on Wednesday asking if I wished to go birding for a day on the coming weekend. Unable to manage Saturday I suggested to Moth that we reprise our visit of last year and head for Radipole this Sunday for some more 'Beardie' action, to which he was happy to acquiesce. So it was arranged that I pick him up from his house at 6am on Sunday morning.

I left my house in the dark with a hard frost having turned the roads white while countless stars in the clear night sky shone above me. My route to Moth was via tortuous single track rural lanes, the road surfaces made treacherous by the thick frost. Fortunately at this time of day the lanes were deserted so I  could drive without fear of meeting another vehicle.

We headed west on the long drive to Dorset, driving out of the night and into a morning of cloudless skies and sunshine. We parked by the small thatched building that serves as the RSPB's Visitor Centre at Radipole and walked over the bridge and along  the main footpath that took us deep into the heart of the reserve, passing through the beds of Phragmites, the reeds standing rank upon rank, their stalks turned to golden by
 the sunlight.

We were headed for a small concrete bridge that crosses the River Wey as it flows through the reserve for this was where we stood last year and encountered a pair of Bearded Tits. We were not alone on the reserve, as others had a similar idea and were wandering the paths by the reeds listening and looking for the tits.

Our view from the bridge over the River Wey.The nearest  reeds on either side
were where the Bearded Tits came to feed and delight us
We heard the distinctive pinging of their calls coming from our right as we headed for the bridge, but the birds were deep in the reeds, far from the path and totally invisible. They ceased calling, (they mainly call when they fly) and we heard them no more.

Rather than walk aimlessly along the various paths that wend their way through the reeds we settled for our tried and trusted strategy of standing on the bridge and awaiting developments. It was very cold at this early hour and although the sun shone, a chilling breeze blew in our face, enough to turn Moth's fingers and my face numb.

There was no sign of any Bearded Tits, not even a call to give us sn inkling of hope and it was well over an hour that we stood waiting, waiting, the cold becoming ever more irksome and me, at least trying not to feel too disappointed. We had come a long way, taking our chance on the highly unpredictable Bearded Tits putting in an appearance and to fail to see them would be a huge disappointment.

There are many of them on the reserve but finding this elusive little bird is a gamble and always requires a deal of luck as well as sheer dogged persistence. The birds have huge areas of reeds, much of them inaccessible, to feed in and, if they do show themselves, can appear anywhere on the reserve and often not where you are specifically looking. The best way to try and see them is, in my opinion, to select what looks a likely place and maintain a constant vigil there despite the temptation to go and look elsewhere. Sometimes you will be lucky and the strategy will work and at other times it will not. We had been very fortunate from the bridge, on our visit to Radipole last year, and therefore saw no reason not to try again from the same location. Another birder who joined us told us that this was his tenth visit to the bridge and he had yet to have a successful encounter with any Bearded Tits. We hoped his ill fortune would turn for the better this morning.

It was extremely cold on the bridge and consequently uncomfortable but we stuck it out. Other birders and photographers came and went, disinclined to be patient or maybe the cold dissuaded them from standing about for too long. There was little else to see apart from a sociable Robin, the inevitable Dunnocks and one of Radipole's famously extrovert Cetti's Warblers. Four drake Mallard hung out below the bridge, a bachelor party, paddling to hold position against the current, waiting for a passerby to throw them some bread. They were joined by a group of Tufted Ducks, the male's heads when caught in the sunlight, turning from black to iridescent green and their black body plumage adopting a velvet like lustre.


I left Moth on the bridge to walk a little way along an adjacent path, trying to recover some feeling in my forzen feet but no sooner had I got a hundred or so metres down the path than Moth called me back. A male Bearded Tit had landed in the reeds by the bridge but it immediately flew off without stopping. I had narrowly missed it.

It was very disappointing but we felt it was a hopeful sign and with spirits partially revitalised, we continued our vigil on the bridge, operating on the premise that hope springs eternal. It did not happen immediately but almost two hours after our arrival Moth noticed a small movement in the reeds in front of us and there was a female Bearded Tit, emrging from the depths of the reeds to fly onto the tasselled head of a reed right by the flowing channel of water.






She crossed the water to another stand of reeds and in quick succession a male joined her, his legs festooned with brightly coloured rings, a jarring addition to the more natural colours of his plumage.


This bird was ringed on 21st October 2019  at the Visitor Centre and 
not seen again until early January this year, near to where we saw it 
today. The colour rings help to identify the movements of the tits 
around the reserve and what areas of reeds they use.
We started taking pictures of them as they fed on the feathery tops of the reeds or clung onto the thin stems. These two were then joined by another male, this time without brightly coloured plastic around his legs. A marked improvement, both photogenically and aesthetically!


It was with equal measures of frustration and delight that we endeavoured to get a clear photograph of the tiny birds but it was difficult (see images below). It was a scene of constant movement, either from the birds or the reeds, often a combination of both. For a fraction they would be clear of any reed stem or head but then just as quickly obscured by intervening stems and heads, as the reeds swayed in the wind or the birds delved deeper amongst the reeds.The birds were forever in motion, either swinging on the reeds or changing position to extract a seed from its fluffy casing, never satisfied with one reed head for long and moving to another that to my eyes appeared identical.




To behold a male Bearded Tit is to observe a creature of exquisite beauty. Every part of his plumage a delight. A tiny conical bill of corn yellow protrudes like a tack from a head of lavender grey, his golden yellow eyes encompassed by glossy black feathers that form moustaches, drooping down to a point on each side of his head. His throat and breast are almost white fading into upper flanks of orange rust and lower flanks of palest pastel pink. The upperparts and long tail are a similar shade of orange to the flanks while the wings are banded lengthwise with white, orange and black. The sun, itself orange, served to accentuate the rust coloured plumage, as if its very rays had been absorbed by the tiny bird.





The female is not nearly so spectacular in appearance. Her head is an unmarked buff brown apart from two lateral dark streaks on her crown and some further dark brown streaking on her back. Her flanks and tail are a shade of orange but paler and duller than the male and her wings mimic the male's pattern of white, orange and black lateral bands. There are those who say the female is as pleasingly marked as the male but do not believe it. True, the plumage has a subtle and delicate beauty but is as nothing when compared to the male.







We watched and photographed the three birds and while we did they were joined by another female, all four busily feeding, their small bodies so light that the heads of the reeds easily supported them but if they landed on a particularly thin stem it would slowly bend downwards and the bird like a forever graceful trapeze artist descended with it until the stem was almost horizontal. 



The heads of the reeds, flag like, with a curtain of bunched seedcases hanging like spilt needles  were the attraction for the tits and they energetically and acrobatically fed on them, pulling a miniscule  seed casing from the reed's head, manipulating the casing in their bill until the seed was extracted, They sidled up and down the reed stems and acrobatically contorted themselves in their search for just the right seed, even grasping two reed stems with splayed legs to get at the seed heads, using their long tail as a counterbalance to their plump bodies. Sometimes they perched on top of the reed head, bending it over, at other times they would hang sideways, their black feet gripping the bunched seeds.








They are sociable birds. following each other through the reeds, reluctant to be separated and when one flew to a more distant reed, the others would soon follow, each bird communicating to the others with their distinctive pinging contact call as they moved. 

They continued to feed energetically amongst the reeds by the water and then moved to a small stand of reeds very near to the bridge on which we stood and here was a heaven sent opportunity to observe and photograph them at close range. We took it with alacrity.





When the Bearded Tits first made an appearance in the reeds there was just four of us on the bridge and such was my concentration on the tits that when I eventually took a glance around me I found a veritable crowd had amassed on the bridge. Word had obviously spread rapidly about the tit's presence. No doubt, it being a sunny Sunday, there were many more people  about on the reserve than would be the case on a weekday but it was still surprising how many had found this spot as soon as the tits were on view.


The Bearded Tits departed at around twenty past twelve. They had been delighting us for almost thirty minutes but to all extents the show was now over. It did not take long for the bridge to become clear of people and it was just three of us that remained. We waited on the bridge for a reasonable period of time but there was no further sign of any Bearded Tits.

Will it be a third time lucky for us next year?

6 comments:

  1. A day with good views of beardies HAS to be a great day!!! x

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  2. Have to say, reading your accounts of your birding adventures (and seeing the photos) has become a highlight of any given day for me! (and a slight source of envy, too...).

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  3. Thank you Steve.It is kind of you to take the trouble to say so
    Best wishes
    Ewan

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