Thursday 14 February 2019

Bumbarrels 10th February 2019

Bumbarrel is an old country name for the Long Tailed Tit and somehow encapsulates both the personality and appearance of this delicate and engaging member of our British avifauna. Flocks of roving Long tailed Tits are a common sight in woods and hedgerows and, increasingly, are becoming so in gardens too.

Recently my peanut feeders have been regularly visited by Long tailed Tits which despite their minute and supposedly delicate bills seem able to chip away at the peanuts and obtain fragments of nut to consume. A whole nut is beyond their capabilities but small flakes of the nut seem manageable although their diet normally only consists of invertebrates.

This afternoon I noticed that a single Long tailed Tit was persistently hanging around the peanuts which is very unusual, in that they are rarely seen alone but usually seen in  the company of at least one other of their kind while at this time of year they are more often in a small flock. They are also normally only interested in the peanuts for a very brief period, just a minute or so before moving on. 

This Long tailed Tit sat on the bare stem of a rambling rose entwining a pergola waiting until the other tits vacated the feeders and then flew down to chip away at the nuts. It was a bit of a trial as it was constantly being chivvied and threatened by both Great and Blue Tits and only had a chance few seconds to feed from the peanuts before conceding its position on the feeder to its larger and more aggressive cousins. Rather than fly away it retreated a few feet to the back of the pergola and sat there quietly amongst the rose stems awaiting another opportunity.

Watching from my window, no more than a few feet away, I could study it at leisure as it perched quietly. In fact I became worried about its state of health as it sat with eyes half closed and feathers fluffed as if something ailed it. Maybe it had caught some infection from the feeders although I am careful to clean them regularly.  For fully five minutes it remained this way and I became ever more anxious as it is so unusual to see this hyperactive species so completely still. But my concern was misplaced as I could see its head was constantly moving, observing everything going on around it. Even though motionless it was fully alert  and then it flew  away strongly. I thought that was that but ten minutes later it was back, this time in its usual hyperactive form and attacking the peanuts only to once more be pushed off them by the larger tits.

It was, however, a persistent little thing, maybe riven by hunger following the cold spell and flew no more than a few feet away to await another opportunity and the other birds around showed no aggression towards it, unless it was on the peanuts. They are pretty little birds and their tiny retrousse bill and vole like black button eyes in a large, rounded head, make them totally enchanting. It is impossible to look at them and not be influenced by their endearing and innocent charm.

Their plumage has, unlike the other tits, no trace of yellow or green and is a mixture of white, black and shades of pink, the domed head and round body looking like the business end of a lollipop stuck onto the end of their very long tail. Occasionally and almost unbelievably, considering their size, some cross the North Sea to spend a winter in Britain. Such birds are very rare and often have pure white heads and if it is possible appear even more delightful than our native birds. They are affectionately known as 'Snowballs'.

A 'Snowball' showing the distinctive all white head. One of a pair 
that I saw at Aldeburgh in Suffolk in 2010
Eventually the lone Long tailed Tit was joined by another of its kind, then another and yet another until collectively there were five which is a more usual circumstance. Now emboldened by numbers they swarmed over the peanuts and the other tits gave way but it was not long before their restless nature persuaded them to move on, departing as ever with an incessant trilling conversation, clinging acrobatically, upside and downside, swinging from the twigs of large bushes as they progressed, studiously searching for the minute invertebrates on which they normally survive. Then one departed further onwards up high into a large tree and as night follows day so the others followed, with tiny whirring wings, in a straggling, haphazard procession of excitable delight. 

It will not be long now before such flocks split up to  form pairs and begin building a nest, for they are very early breeders, commencing often in the middle of February, placing a nest which is an avian marvel of moss. lichen, cobwebs and feather construction, in a dense blackthorn bush or bramble. Sometimes a pair will receive assistance from another or others, usually a close relative. This bond is maintained after the breeding season and often a flock will consist of the nesting adults and their offspring as well as 'aunts' and 'uncles' that have helped in raising the young.

Prolonged cold spells hit this delicate bird hard and the population can be reduced by up to 80% but they have a large number of young and provided the weather is benign in following years they soon restore their numbers. In winter, especially when it is very cold, they will huddle up together at their night time roost, forming a feathered lump to warm one another, lined up on a sheltered thin twig, deep in a bush. When seen like this I defy anyone with a heart not to feel totally captivated. 

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