The other day, whilst eating my breakfast and winding down from getting the kids off to school, a sudden flurry of movement outside in the garden grabbed my attention. Minutes earlier, I’d been watching two long-tailed tits as they clung to the bird feeders in our damson trees – but was soon dropping my spoon into my muesli, as I realised they’d appeared again; this time in a bush much nearer to the house. A lot nearer than they usually venture. I could hardly believe it when they then flew down to the patio, and fidgeted and fluttered along the fence, immediately outside the window.
They were pecking at the crevices underneath and between the railings – I think possibly gathering spiders’ webs, which they use in their nest building. It’s now the time when the winter flocks of long-tailed tits have broken up into breeding pairs – and I’m wondering if this pair may be nesting very nearby. They’re certainly spending quite a bit of time in and around our garden lately, and one (I presume the male) seems to be getting very territorial on our patch. A couple of times this week, we’ve seen him pause in his feeding to tussle with his own reflection in the shed window – possibly mistaking his mirror image for a “rival.”
Now - as I sat wide-eyed, watching them – this fascination with his own reflection may have taken over again, because he suddenly flew away from the cobwebby fence and even closer to the house – so close, he actually perched on the window frame! From there, he looked into the room for a moment, before fluttering earnestly at the glass. Thankfully, for his own safety, he gave that up as a bad job very quickly!
I always keep the camera to hand whilst wildlife watching from the house, and so managed to capture the above photo when he darted on to a garden chair – again extremely close to the window. Long-tailed tits move like super-fast little gizmos, never staying still – flick, flit, flick – so it was a matter of point, focus, click – and hope for the best! I missed a lot of split second opportunities to get better shots (it would have been great to get his super-long tail in full view) – but just couldn’t get the camera to focus in time, before this tiny, exquisite bird shifted again.
After the birds left, I was left with a huge smile on my face. It really was one of those set-you-up-for-the-day wildlife moments. As Simon Barnes writes, in his warm, wonderful book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher - in such moments there is ‘the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected.’ The Long-tailed tit is one of my favourite birds, and always brings its own special day-brightening magic with it. For me, meeting with a flock of these delicately colourful birds, is one of the speciality treats of winter-time. When out on a chilly walk, or in the garden, I love to catch the hustle-bustle of their calls, and to look up and see them jinking from tree to tree, see-sawing their long tails like little trapeze artists, as they swing-flit through the branches.
Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, lists the many vernacular names for this beautiful little bird; a list that rings with a wonderful, old-time rustic mixture of gleeful spade-calling and joyful wordplay – like something tumbling from the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel. Names such as ‘bum barrel,’ ‘bush oven,’ ‘feather poke,’ ‘hedge jug,’ ‘jack in a bottle,’ ‘poke bag,’ ‘pudding bag,’ and ‘long pod.’ Plus, Birds Britannica adds, there is the lesser known Cornish name, ‘patiney’ or ‘patteny paley.’ Many of these names stem from the oval, domed shape of the long-tailed tit’s nest, which Birds Britannica goes on to tells us ‘comprises an intricate mix of wool and moss bound and felted together with spider’s web, camouflaged with as many as 4000 lichen flakes.’
Other fond, and brilliantly appropriate, pseudonyms I often hear amongst modern day devotees of this species are ‘flying lollipops,’ ‘flying flumps’ or ‘Gizmos’ (as in Gizmo from Gremlins!) It’s a favourite bird of many a birder and wildlife watcher – and John Clare, the nineteenth century naturalist poet doesn’t let us down in providing a poetic tribute to Aegithalos caudatus. Inspired by his local ‘bumbarrels,’ he wrote this poem, full of closely observed detail – and a lovely, vivid sense of these busy little birds, which truly do ‘hang and hide along’:
The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,
Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest
First with a shade of green though winter-dashed -
There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest
Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied
And warm and rich as feather-bed within,
With little hole on its contrary side
That pathway peepers may no knowledge win
Of what her little oval nest contains -
Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red
Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes
Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song
Of the old birds who call them to be fed
While down the hedge they hang and hide along.
(Bumbarrel’s Nest is one of the poems included in the anthology, The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee – more on this book later!)