Thursday, 14 March 2013

Bumbarrels – My Favourite

Yes, you read correctly.

‘Bumbarrel’ is an old name for my favourite bird. The reason they’re called bumbarrel, is for the shape of their nest. It’s almost spherical, with a little hole at the front, and made from a special weave of moss, lichen, spiders’ webs and feathers.
I had a magical hour at RSPB Dungeness in Kent. Early March 2009, it was mid morning, I was on one of my favourite nature reserves, there was hardly another soul about….it was bliss.

It was so peaceful, I could hear a distant fox bark, a chaffinch was calling ‘pink pink’ close-by. Then even closer I heard the distinctive, quiet buzzing call of a long-tailed tit. Being early March, most of the trees and shrubs were in bud and I had wonderfully clear views as it flitted about the bushes beside the path. The views were so good, that I soon realised it wasn’t seeking food, but gathering nesting material, and there were two of them, a pair!

One, not sure if it was the male or female as both sexes look alike, was carrying a small white feather. I stood and watched them for about 10 minutes, as they continually disappeared away from view, although not too far away as I could still hear them, before returning with more nesting material. Each time they returned to the same spot, I moved my viewing position slightly, I did this slowly and quietly as they were just feet away from me, and then I saw it, a half-completed nest. It blended in beautifully, and although it was right beside the path in clear view, you could easily have walked past without seeing it. Another couple of weeks time it would disappear from view completely as the gorse bush greened and blossomed.

I had my camera in my bag, I was concerned that I was so close, that any movements I made could alarm them. So, I went into stealth mode, well not really, each time they flitted off in search of material, I would use their approximately three minute absence to get my camera ready, it took them to go off searching about three times before I was ready. I’m not a wildlife photogrpher, more an opportunist happy snapper, so in my bag, the camera was buried beneath my sandwiches, flask, notebook, anyway now I’m ready.

Now this next bit, may sound terrible, but anyone that knows me, will know I enthusiastically enjoy sharing wildlife with other people, infact it was part of my job to do that. So there I was ready and waiting for them to return, camera in hand, when I saw in the distance, someone walking the path towards me. I moved away, extricated my flask from my bag and poured a coffee. As they approached I smiled and said ‘hello’, their response was standard ‘morning, much about?’ I answered ‘there was a firecrest earlier, in bushes behind the main hide’. I wasn’t lying, as I had met two birders earlier who were looking for it, I spent 10 minutes with them looking, but it was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, so I wished them well and moved on. He said ‘ thanks very much’ and shot off. I finished my coffee and moved slowly back in to position.

They were still building, and would often after adding material, sit in the nest, wriggle about, shaping it for a perfect fit. As well as feathers, moss and lichen, they used a lot of spider’s web. It most be frustrating to the local spider population, who had probably been up all night, spinning their intricate web, only for the bumbarrels to collect it. Silk is an absolute key element in their nestbuilding. It doesn’t just help to bind the structure together and make it weather proof, it gives the whole structure flexibility. Long-tailed tits, will often lay ten or more eggs, and that flexibility allows the nest to expand as the chicks grow, an amazing feat of engineering and one of the reasons that they are my favourite bird. Plus the fact that they look like delicate pink fluffballs on a stick.

This magical moment happened just over four years ago, but it still seems as though it was yesterday. My only regret, is that I never made more of an effort to return a few weeks later to see how they got on. I like to think they completed that nest, it disappeared from view as the gorse grew and they raised a healthy family. Nature really is amazing!