I have nine long-tailed tits visiting the garden at the moment. They come once or twice a day to feed on the fat bars, but the busiest time is just before dusk.
They are such delicate little birds it’s a pleasure to watch them flitting about in the fading light and to listen to the musical notes they make as they call out to one another companionably as they feed.
Long-tailed tits have strong family bonds - extended family members all help to bring up a brood - and they fly about in family groups or pairs, calling to one another continuously. I've been wondering whether these visitors are the grown chicks from a nest I watched in the valley below the house last year.
I had first spotted the adult pair whilst painting at my easel. They had been investigating the greenhouse, checking every crevice and overhang in a fussy, pernickety fashion. At first I had thought they were looking for insects. But 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. It was a bit chilly with the window open, but I wanted to hear them coming so I pulled over another jumper and carried on painting as I waited.
After a short while I heard their distinctive calls and looked round to see them bobbing along the hedge, taking short flights. I picked up my binoculars and watched as they began exploring around the greenhouse again. They were picking at spiders’ cobwebs in the overhangs.
Long-tailed tits weave soft, delicate nests 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. They can have up to 15 in a brood – so they need the space!
Seeing such a delicate, beautiful bird tug at soft nesting material is a touching sight and one which captured my imagination and inspired me to paint this bird as it pulled at some sheep’s wool.
By the next day this pair had gathered most of the cobwebs from the outside of the greenhouse and had gone inside looking for more. I could hear them calling excitedly to one another as they gathered up what must have felt like an unlimited supply.
I was worried they would get trapped in there, but I noticed that they were able to find their way out of a small gap where the window had been left ajar 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. 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 bottom of the valley. It was difficult to keep track of them in the large trees and sure enough I soon lost them.
I repositioned myself on the other side of the valley where I had last seen them and 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. They flew over my head and into the hedge beside me and then followed the hedge down the valley. They stopped in a dense bit of hawthorn hedge. I could hear them calling excitedly as I crept closer and peered in with my binoculars.
It was incredible seeing them building the nest. To start with it was cup-shaped, like most nests, but they built it up over the course of a few days into a dome with an entrance hole near the top. Once the structure was complete they went on to line the nest with feathers.
Long-tailed tits are 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 is to their disadvantage because there is little leaf cover to hide in at this time and it’s not unusual to find their nests ripped apart by corvids – especially magpies.
This nest was well hidden, however, and the chicks were successful. I’m keeping an eye out to see if the visitors to my feeders are nesting near the garden again, but no sign so far.