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Part 28 - The Coal tit and the Moorhen

Coal tit Parus ater

No bigger than the blue tit, the coal tit has the black crown of the great tit but no yellow at all. Its white nape, although sometimes not that obvious as the bird moves very quickly, can be a good diagnostic feature. Coal tits are more closely associated with conifers than either of the other two common members of the family. They are regular visitors to gardens and to bird feeders but - to my great regret – almost never to mine! (What about yours? Let me know!). They feed mostly on small insects like flies and aphids in the summer but will also take seeds. Coal tits are one of the few bird species to hoard food in caches – willow tits and jays also do this – and this may be why they suffer less than some other small birds during hard winter weather. There are thought to be around 150,000 pairs in England, making this bird less common here than it is either in Scotland or in Wales .

Coal tits had a variety of local names, most of which are now rarely if ever used – coalmouse, black ox-eye, little blackcap and coaly hood are examples. The call-notes are always high-pitched and the song is reminiscent of the great tit’s – “teacher, teacher” but faster and more shrill. Although they often forage in the leaf canopy, they may nest on or near the ground in a tree stump or a bank. The eggs are white, with irregular reddish-brown markings.

Moorhen Gallinula chloropus

You’ll see a moorhen in a tree more frequently than you see a coal tit on the ground. Moorhens sometimes roost in trees, probably to keep clear of predators like the accidentally introduced American mink, and may even nest in them. More often, the nest site is a platform of vegetation perilously close to water. Moorhens (aka kitty coot, stankie, pond hen, morant, skitty and bilcock) need only very small areas of water to breed and may even come to large garden ponds like the one restored by the late Peggy Webb in Well Green Lane. Elsewhere in Kingston they can be seen on the fishing lakes near Spring Barn Farm, on the Cockshut and in the ditches on Lewes Brooks.

Moorhens don’t look like any other species. They have a bright red forehead and a red, yellow-tipped, bill. White flashes under the tail are constantly moved up and down. They are quite vocal but even if you locate the source of a “curruc” call quickly enough, you are often only just in time to see a jerkily- moving dark shape disappear into reeds or overhanging branches near the water’s edge.

When waters are frozen for long periods, moorhens suffer and the population certainly crashed in the long hard winter of 1962/3. (This was the year, incidentally, that I myself crashed through the ice into the freezing and murky waters of a pond near the bus-stop at the beginning of my journey home from my school in north London to Potters Bar: my mother was appalled when this came to light but I remember being remarkably untroubled about the whole episode, even including the hour I spent in soaking, muddy and cold clothes: hard or what?!). But – and returning to our moorhens – as they can lay up to 11 eggs, numbers can recover very quickly.

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