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Part 15 - The Yellow Wagtail and the Long-tailed Tit

Yellow wagtail - Motacilla flava

Everyone knows the pied wagtail but this closely-related species is much less familiar. Yellow wagtails are summer migrants, arriving in April and generally leaving in mid September to October. They are insectivorous birds, closely associated with damp places like river valleys. Grazing marsh like that at Pevensey Levels is a classic habitat where they can feed on the flies and other invertebrates around the cattle. However, when in 1971 I came to live in west London, just a couple of stones’ throws north of Heathrow airport in Harlington, I was both astonished and delighted to find a small colony of yellow wagtails among the lettuces and other vegetables grown in the market garden at the end of my road. The organic fertiliser used to enrich the fields must have attracted enough insects to feed these few pairs.

Oddly, perhaps, the most likely place to find yellow wagtails in Kingston at this time of the year is also the driest – the top of the Downs. The sheep here presumably ensure the presence of some suitable food, or rather, their dung does, but the birds don’t hang about for long and you have to have luck on your side to see them. Early morning is probably the best time. Most frequently, you hear the call first – a soft “tseep” reminiscent of reed bunting (if that helps!). Males in breeding plumage are a wonderful sight, with the chest and underparts a deep glowing yellow. Females, juveniles and post-breeding males are all less brightly-coloured. Some of the birds found on the coast during the autumn migration may be of other “races” of yellow wagtail, most of which are less yellow and may have blue, grey or even black heads. Seaford Head is a good place to see them.

Long-tailed tit - Aegithalos caudatus

This lovely bird has many local names, mostly stemming from the shape of its nest. Recently, however, Chris Baines, the writer and broadcaster who has the best claim to have popularised wildlife gardening (and the man to whom, therefore, in a way, I owe my current occupation!) has coined a name after the bird itself - “the flying teaspoon”. This is apt enough since the tail is almost absurdly long – far too long, it seems, to be accommodated within the small domed nest which this bird so carefully weaves together from moss, spiders’ webs, lichen and an astonishing number of feathers. Someone, inevitably, has counted these (John Lennon would have appreciated this fact!) and found 2000. I will take his or her word for it. However many there are, the nest is a quite astonishing construction.

Long-tailed tits are among the most vocal and sociable of birds and group together throughout much of the year. Ringing studies have shown that these parties are made up of members of an extended family, which makes huddling together on cold winter nights rather easier for them. In woodland, mixed groups of birds predominantly composed of long-tailed tits often include other tit species as well as goldcrests, treecreepers and nuthatches. I can’t say that I’ve noticed many such mixed groups in Kingston but long-tailed tits themselves seem to be all over the place as I write this in mid-September and have been very active in my own back garden. This species has only recently started to come to bird feeders. It will take peanuts but prefers small seeds and grated cheese, although its natural food is almost exclusively invertebrates such as spiders and small insects.

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