Wednesday 9 February 2022

The Penduline Swings 7th February 2022

As I mentioned in my previous blog, this Monday was to be the day Mark (P) and myself attempted to see not only the elusive Baikal Teal at Greylake but also the three wintering Penduline Tits at Weston Airfield, which lies just to the east of Weston-super-Mare. The airfield is now no longer in use and half of it is being built over with new houses but the other half has been left to become quite a nice wetland with good stands of both Common Reed (Phragmites) with its distinctive feathered seedheads and Greater Reed Mace (Bulrush) with their fabled, velvety brown, cylindrical heads. It is the latter which are attractive to the Penduline Tits, which extract tiny grubs from inside the soft brown heads.

I have form with Weston Airfield,  having visited twice in an effort to see the tits.The first time I spent a cold and miserable four hours along with many others, standing and looking at the bulrushes with not a sign of any Penduline Tit. A few weeks later, fired by superb images of them on social media and assuming they were now being more co-operative I went again and three hours later gave it up, having once more failed to achieve sight or sound of them.

Penduline Tits are a rare visitor to Britain.Their normal range is from Denmark to western Russia, south to southern Europe and Turkey. Northern birds migrate to southern Europe, northern Morocco and the Middle East for the winter but populations in the south of their range are sedentary. Their preferred habitat is lakes, swamps and marshes. 

I reconciled myself to the fact that yet another visit to Weston was probably a lost cause but was happy to go with Mark one more time,  enthused after our success with the Baikal Teal. We arrived in a now cloudy, rather depressing late morning and in surroundings very different to the rural ones we had left at Greylake. Parking in a narrow lane by an industrial estate we then went through a gap in a chain link fence and 'enjoyed' a yomp across a muddy bund bisecting what can only be called a wasteland of mud and water that would eventually lead us to the wetland part of the now abandoned airfield. The mud, as it was on my previous visits, was of a particularly glutinous variety that stubbornly stuck to your boots no matter what but we soldiered on and eventually came to the track by the reeds.

On my past two visits there had been a number of birders stationed strategically along the length of the track at the edge of the wetland, all of us keeping an eye on our particular patch of reeds, so we could be confident that if the tits showed up someone would find them and alert the others. Today however, we were on our own apart from two birders positioned by the area of reeds where the tits had mostly been seen during their prolonged stay.

We walked along to join them and to learn that we had missed the tits by five minutes.

It's always the same in this situation, one which is only too familiar to anyone who seeks out rare birds.

One of the birders pointed to a small clump of bulrushes in a channel of water just a few metres from us

'You should have been here five minutes ago.They were showing really close in those bulrushes.I've got some superb pictures. They were so ridiculously close you just could not fail

You have to smile and take it on the chin but inwardly your heart sinks to your boots

'Did you see where they went?' I enquired wistfully.

'They disappeared in that direction', he said, pointing to a large area of inaccessible reeds.

'They seemed to have been spooked by a Common Chiffchaff.''

We stood looking at the close bulrushes in question, as if power of thought would magic the tits into appearing but of course it did not. The two birders, happy and content, left us to it, wishing us good luck.

We were on our own now. Not another soul in sight. 

By now my spirits had sunk to the depths.If only we had been here minutes earlier but now it looked like it was going to be yet another dip.

We walked slowly back along the track checking any likely looking stand of bulrushes but there was not a sign of the Penduline Tits. European Stonechats flitted amongst the reeds and perched provocatively on top of the reeds while teal and snipe lurked on the edges of  the larger areas of water.

European Stonechat male

European Stonechat female

We found the Chiffchaff but there was no sign of the desired threesome.For forty or so minutes we wandered up the track and along narrow paths through stands of head high reeds and then, with no success, stood forlornly looking around at not very much in the way of birdlife. It was at this precise moment I felt at my lowest.

We had to do something to give us an inkling of hope

'Come on Mark, let's go back to where they were seen by those two birders and wait there. You never know they might come back.'

We wandered back and a pair of stonechats caught my attention as we arrived at the spot where the tits had been seen earlier.I thought I saw some fluff from the bulrushes blowing away in the wind but was concentrating on the stonechats.

Mark had other ideas, then uttered the welcome words

 'Here they are!'  

And sure enough there was a Penduline Tit attacking a bulrush head with some gusto, causing the fluffy seeds to fly out of the punctured head and be carried away on the wind. 

It was the classic way to find these little birds by noting the wind dispersing the seed fluff that they dig out as they search for the grubs that live in the bulrush head.

Penduline Tits are smart, sociable little birds, similar in size to a Blue Tit but slimmer, their head a pale shade of grey with a pantomime black bandit mask hiding their eyes, their upperparts reddish brown, a shade lighter than the brown of the bulrush heads on which they acrobatically cling and tear into with their tin tack like bills.

They appeared immune to our presence no matter how close we stood and carried on tearing into the heads with some violence, clinging onto them with black legs and feet, shuffling up and down the head and stems, searching for their prey.At first I could only see one but then found another paler individual close by which was shortly joined by a third. Game, Set and Match. All three were right here in front of us.

We watched them for around thirty five minutes. A real delight, especially after initially thinking I had again missed my chance of seeing them

We headed back to the car with the weather taking a distinct turn for the worse but this Monday would certainly be memorable for both of us and it was a contented walk back to the car and journey back to Oxfordshire.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! :o( They seem to 'perform' on everyone's 2nd attempt, exceptmine - I gave up after my 2nd visit (when I saw you) & I haven't been back. :o( Maybe I'll have one more try before they depart.... ;o)