Monday, 24 March 2014

Feathering the nest

These early days of spring are some of the best of the year. There is a real sense of optimism, coupled with the promise of what lies ahead and a feeling that winter has passed. The weather of recent weeks has prompted a rising chorus of bird song and many species have already started their breeding attempts. From around the town have come reports of blackbirds, collared doves and robins with eggs, and the first fledged young of the year are already demanding food from their parents.

But today my attentions are elsewhere, as I try to identify where the local long-tailed tits have made their intricate nests. We have a dozen pairs on our local reserve and locating their nests for the BTO’s Nest Record Scheme has become a regular feature for the start of my ‘nest-monitoring’ year. Long-tailed tit nests are some of the easiest to find, but only if you can watch the adults back to the nest site. This is best done early in the season while each pair is still constructing its nest, which is made from moss, tied together with spider web and decorated with lichen. Once the domed structure is complete, the birds line it with feathers, perhaps delivering as many as 2,000 feathers over the course of several days.

Following long-tailed tits back to the nest is fairly easy if a bird happens to be carrying a white feather in its bill. It is not long until I catch up some birds doing exactly this, their presence first revealed by the calls that they seem to deliver almost continuously when in each other’s company. The birds flick along the hedgeline and then cross the track to enter a long bramble in which they have nested in previous years. Once the birds leave the bush, the feather having been deposited, I go and take a closer look. By squatting down low to the ground I can peer up through the bush, silhouetting the nest against the sky. It is on the far side of the bush; I know from past experience that it will be a painful approach through other brambles to reach it. With the first one found, I move off to find the others.

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