Nest Lane – everything you need for a des res

Yesterday, as I walked along the footpath just over the railway bridge as you leave Burwell to go to Exning, I was listening to the high pitched short zeep contact calls of a pair of long-tailed tits. These lovely small birds can easily be picked out by their long tails, the subtle white/black stripe on their head and pale pinkish fronts.

Long-tailed tit’s nest hidden inside a bramble bush. Photo: Roger Bailey.

Long-tailed tits have staggeringly beautiful nests. Often sited in the middle of a bramble bush, their nests are ball shaped, with a small opening near the top. The outside is covered with lichen and spider’s webs, making them incredibly well camouflaged. Inside, they are lined with up to 2,000 feathers – the ultimate in cosiness.

Lichen for their nest’s exterior decoration (quite literally!) is plentifully available on the hedgerow’s branches. But I was wondering where these tiny birds manage to get so many feathers to line them. Yet once I started to look, I started seeing feathers all along the path. My guess is that one sparrowhawk kill of a pigeon results in a mass scattering of feathers, and in nature’s natural recycling process nothing goes to waste. A pigeon’s (or similar bird’s) downy feathers are designed to insulate its owner from the cold – and from the heat. Just what is needed as a bed for precious eggs or tiny chicks.

Branches of hedgerow shrubs are covered with lichen, providing camouflage material for birds’ nests.

Some time ago I had the privilege of travelling to Bangladesh. In the capital Dhaka I walked along Bicycle Street which was lined with shops, each specialising in different parts of a bicycle or rickshaw. I reckon the footpath I was walking along yesterday might be known as Nest Street by the local birds…

If you fancy a challenge, put yourselves in the shoes (well, the wings) of long-tailed tits and try spotting and counting the feathers you can see as you walk. Find out how far you have to walk before you have seen the 2,000 they need for one nest!

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Fast bowler song of male chaffinches

Male chaffinch with blue grey head and rosy breast. Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

Chaffinches are singing loudly now as they start to nest. I have heard them all round the village, whenever I have been near an area with grown out hedge or scrubby trees. If you learn their song, you have a head start on being able to spot them as you know what you are looking for. I hear their song and know to look at the edge branches or near the top of a scrubby bush, from where males are keeping a sharp eye on their territory.

Chaffinches’ song is loud and repeated. I was taught to think of the song as sounding like a fast bowler. A male chaffinch starts with a repeated note that gets ever faster, and ends with a flourish at the end – just like the bowler who finishes her run with the flick of her arm over her head as she throws the ball. (Or he, of course.) If you don’t already know it, listen out for it as you walk round the village and I am sure you will hear it.

Males are striking birds with blue-grey heads, with a dash of black above their bill, and a rusty-rosy red breast. Even when shaded, the double white stripe – wing bars – can usually be picked out. If you can only see a silhouette look at the shape of the bill – its stoutness shows you are looking at a finch, with a bill designed for crunching seeds.

Drabber female chaffinch, Image by Jürgen Richterich from Pixabay

As so often in the bird world, for reasons of practicality, females are drabber! A bird with a male’s colouring sitting on a nest would easily be spotted by a predator.

Chaffinches build one of the most beautiful nests of any of our bird species. Often wedged in a fork of a tree and carefully camouflaged on the outside with mosses, lichens and spider webs, the nest becomes almost invisible.

A cosy chaffinch nest decorated with mosses, lichen and spider webs for camouflage. (Taken from a tree last September after the breeding season was well over.)

I was called some years ago by a distressed villager who had been pulling at ivy on a tree and out tumbled a nest and chicks. We tried putting the nest back in the tree but it was too damaged and the adult birds didn’t return… So resist gardening that disturbs vegetation in trees, or scrubby areas until mid-July at least, any cutting back of hedges needs to wait til August.

A tiny shell fragment indicates this nest hatched successfully

Have you found an egg shell lying in the middle of your lawn? As I got this nest out to photograph, I noticed a fragment of shell at its base. If parent birds took the easy option of throwing the egg shells over the side of the nest, predators would be given a clue that a nest was above. Instead, parent birds carry off the shell, and discard it away from the nest. Hence that find of an egg shell in the middle of your lawn – its a good sign – somewhere nearby a nest has safely hatched chicks. So back to the fragment of shell I saw in the chaffinch’s nest. That is the tiny scrap of shell that the chick will have pecked out with its egg tooth, and too small for the parents to carry away and discard. People who monitor nesting success – which provides important information for why a bird species is doing well or not – look for a tiny bits of shell like this in the bottom of a nest – a great sign that the nest hatched successfully. All that singing from the male bird, all the sitting from the female, has resulted in chicks. Hurrah!

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