Keeping watch on birds that spin nests out of webs

A long tailed tit. Pic: Robert Fuller.
A long tailed tit. Pic: Robert Fuller.
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I was in the greenhouse preparing seed beds with my daughter Lily when she announced, in a judgemental tone that only five-year-olds can command, that the greenhouse was ‘full of cobwebs’.

I explained that I left them there deliberately for the long-tailed tits to build their nests from. She was fascinated as I showed her how these beautiful little birds weave a soft, delicate nest out of lichen, moss or sheep’s wool and then almost stitch it together with sticky cobwebs so that the nests can expand as their chicks grow.

She spent the rest of the morning collecting bits of tangled sheep’s wool and moss from the fence that lines the garden boundary and leaving it in little piles by the greenhouse door which she bound together like little Red Cross parcels.

The idea that the long-tailed tits needed her help made me smile because I have been known to do the same thing when I come across material that looks soft enough for a long-tailed tit nest.

The species is one of Britain’s earliest nest builders - I have seen them begin in the first week of February whilst there is still snow on the ground - but this early start can lead to problems because there’s no leaf cover to hide behind.

It’s not unusual to find their elaborate nests ripped apart by corvids, especially magpies. So it’s natural to want to try to help them.

I showed Lily some photographs of some long-tailed tits that I had watched gathering cobwebs from the greenhouse last spring. I had first seen them from my studio window. They were checking every crevice and overhang with interest and at first I thought they were looking for insects.

By the time they had made their third trip to the greenhouse I suspected something else was up. I got out my binoculars and camera and opened the door to the studio so that I was ready to watch more closely when they next visited. With the door open it was a bit chilly to say the least, but I wanted to hear them coming so I pulled over another jumper and carried on painting as I waited.

Long-tailed tits have a very musical contact call and tend to fly together in family groups or pairs, keeping in touch continually, so they are easy to locate once you learn the sound.

After a short while I heard this distinctive tune and looked round to see them bobbing along the hedge, taking short flights.

I picked up my binoculars and watched as they began investigating the greenhouse again. They were picking at spiders’ cobwebs in the overhangs.

By the next day they had gathered most of the cobwebs from the outside of the greenhouse and had gone inside looking for more.

I heard their excited calls as they gathered up what must have felt like an unlimited supply. I was worried about them as they had gone through a very small gap where a window was only slightly ajar. But I noticed that they were able to find their way out with ease and watched them carry off their plunder towards the valley below the garden.

By lunch time, after watching these almost continuous trips back and forth, I couldn’t resist having a look for the nest they were busy building. I set off down the valley in the direction the long-tailed tits had headed and waited.

It wasn’t long before I heard them. They were following the hedge line away from the greenhouse and were flying into a line of sycamores in the valley bottom. It was difficult to keep track of them in the large trees and I soon lost them.

I repositioned myself on the other side of the valley where I had last seen them and then spotted them on the way back to the garden, so I sat tight and waited for them to return.

It turned out that I had positioned myself in just the right spot as they flew right over my head and into the hedge beside me. They followed the hedge down the valley and stopped in a dense bit of hawthorn hedge.

I could hear them calling excitedly as I crept closer and peered in with my binoculars. I could see them building the nest.

It was cup-shaped, like most nests, but long-tailed tits don’t stop there. I watched over the next few days as they built it up into an intricate dome with an entrance hole near the top. Once the dome structure was complete they went on to line the nest with feathers.

In a good year long-tailed tits can have up to 15 chicks in a brood so the nest needs to be quite spacious with scope for expansion as they grow.

This nest was well hidden, despite the fact that the hawthorn was not yet in leaf, and escaped predators.

Long tailed-tits have strong family ties and often siblings that have lost their own nests will help feed the growing brood.

Lily and I have kept a close watch for long-tailed tits at the bird feeders. Over the winter nine of them were visiting the garden once or twice a day, feeding on fat bars just before dusk.

I like to think it was the same birds from the nest last year but I couldn’t be certain. Lily is quite certain it is and has now begun her own vigil of the greenhouse, keen to see if her little parcels are going to be taken up.

I’m glad of the opportunity to show my children that nature has its own way of spring cleaning.