The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 10.1.18

on .

A New Year and new dawns which, little by little, are coming that bit earlier each morning. The year, the worm has turned and although there may be plenty of winter weather to come, like us, some birds are already looking ahead to spring. Ringing out loud and clear, echoing across a white frost adorned winter landscape, a sole great tit is acknowledging that forthcoming transition. His voice, as he 'saws' away, drifts across the frozen fields, the two-syllable declaration sending a clear, unequivocal message to any eligible female great tits that may be listening - "I'm available ... !" The fact that the temperature is currently lingering below zero does not it seems, discourage him.

On a day of wall-to-wall blue sky reflected in an equally azure tinted loch surface now entirely covered by ice, which incidentally is already thick enough to bear the weight of hundreds of roosting geese, there is a distinct irony about this lone vocalist's message. It is, after all, early January! However, it is clear that today's low temperatures do not necessarily have an influence on his desire to begin the preliminaries of an as yet seemingly distant breeding season.

So what has triggered this sudden burst of enthusiasm? Gradually lengthening hours of daylight must be the key. 'Let there be light' ... and there will be a response. A cloudless sky, which of course, is a prelude to an ice ridden night, nevertheless extends the hours of daylight that little bit further, the hours of daylight.

And of course, the male great tit is always one to jump on to the bandwagon of opportunity to get into 'breeding season mode' at the earliest possible juncture if only to put down a marker! This particular fellow - the first I have heard this winter - having entered the spirit of things early, will without doubt, be in it for the long haul. He may well find that his early start will stimulate others to join the chorus. Such precocity does turn female heads and may well give him a head start.

However, as the season progresses, whilst his vocal prowess will tick boxes, he probably knows that there is indeed a long time to go before he is likely to fulfil his dreams. Indeed, there will also be much vigorous competition to ward off before he may expect to settle with a female, once she becomes the apple of his eye - or rather, he of hers! Even then, he cannot be sure of conquest. Female great tits are extremely demanding and brook no failures in their mates.

As a part of his courtship ritual, he will establish a territory in which, ultimately he must hope, he will induce a female to settle and nest with him. But even at that unreasonably advanced stage of their relationship, he cannot be sure that she will ultimately throw in her lot with him. She will need to be fully satisfied that the territory he commands is right for the vital job of raising a healthy family. Thus it must, as a matter of course, yield plenty of food gathering opportunities for the family when it finally comes along. And it must of course, include several good potential nest sites.

In assessing a territory's food potential, great tits must have a keen awareness of what moth activity, in particular, there is going on within the chosen patch. When eventually a family of little great tits hatches, it will require a supply of caterpillars, small to begin with and later larger to sustain them. That is where the moths come in! This vital supply and the great tits' ability to register exactly when the moths too are in breeding mode is clearly a crucial factor. Furthermore, should the chosen territory disappoint and fail to produce sufficient food, the poor old male may well find himself whistling to himself! Such a perceived food shortfall is likely to prompt his prospective mate to immediately seek a divorce and depart to find another mate who commands a more fully provisioned patch.

There is no sentiment about it, this is pragmatic decision making on the wing. It will not matter how well and vigorously a male great tit may sing. It will not matter how handsome he looks with his black chest band dominating his otherwise colourful plumage. If he doesn't command a territory that will provide for the family that the pair may hope to produce later in the spring, his cause is lost! As ever, such choice is ultimately made by the female. Repeating the bald fact that there is no sentiment involved, she, as the season advances, has but one aim ... to produce the next generation of great tits! Her choice of partner is entirely made on pragmatic grounds.

With so many different factors at play, it is clear that great tits must therefore be particularly astute and observant if they are to eventually succeed in rearing a new generation of their kind when spring finally takes over from winter. In essence, great tits are birds of woodland. However, as more households have taken to feeding wild birds on a regular basis, this is a bird that has adapted particularly well to the garden environment. In spring, it is very much an insectivore. It feeds its young exclusively on the said caterpillars, yet for the rest of the year it survives largely on the likes of seeds and nuts, some obtained from bird-tables, the rest from the woodland floor, where it is a constant and colourful presence.

Great tits, of course, take well to nest boxes and with the number of gizmos now widely available, many pairs and their youngsters now 'star' in the home-made movie business, their every move captured on film and relayed to the household occupants. However, in their more natural woodland habitat, they do broaden their diet to include a number of rather unexpected items. For instance, they occasionally prey on the young of other birds. They have also sometimes been seen feeding on small lizards and frogs but most surprisingly perhaps, they have been observed raiding bat roosts, with the tiny pipistrelle the main victim.

Great tits themselves, of course, often fall victim to sparrowhawks and whereas it might be thought that larger, more virile looking males might seem to be the most likely to attract females, in reality, smaller, more agile birds actually come out on top. The larger birds are apparently much more likely to be picked off by hawks. As a general rule, great tits have only one brood of youngsters each year, albeit that that brood may contain as many as a dozen young!

With winter maintaining its grip on the landscape, all that is very much in the future. Today's bold vocal statement is but a prelude to the excitement that will be generated as eventually winter surrenders to advancing spring and the competition really begins to hot up. However, it does seem to be a particularly early kick-off for one cock great tit, that's for sure.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods