Long-tailed Tits roosting in Hembury Woods

Field Paintings

I started my search for long-tailed tit roosts in late November last year. I usually wait until most of the leaves are off the trees as the birds will tend to roost in holly and ivy clumps then. There were plenty of birds around after another successful breeding season. A flock at Spitchwick on Dartmoor proved too difficult to find as there are so many potential roost sites here and I missed another flock by the old church at Buckfastleigh. I then turned my attention to Hembury Woods and was more successful here than I could ever have imagined.

On 4th December I followed a flock for over an hour as they moved around the wood eventually tracking them to an area where I had previously found roosts. They disappeared in a patch of hollies about 4.30pm so I went back the following evening and managed to find a flock of 8 roosting there.

In previous winters roosting flocks would be faithful to a particular roost for a week or so and then move on and I would lose track of them so switch to another flock. But this flock seemed to be using roosts in a fairly small area and were much easier to follow. They moved to a small alder buckthorn for a few nights roosting in the open bare branches before moving to another holly. There were 8 or sometimes 9 birds at this time.

After losing track of them briefly around christmas I found a third roost site also in a holly then a fourth nearby. Then from new years day until 24th January I managed to find them every night in three of the holly roost sites. So as not to disturb the birds I am careful to only shine a torch on them when it is completely dark to avoid them flying off and keeping this to a minimum. But as I was able to watch them nightly they soon became used to the torchlight so I could watch them forming the roost as well which was a real treat. Also on 10th January another flock joined them forming a ‘super roost’ of 15 birds which peaked at 17 the following evening – my record count.

After two weeks of this the birds were so accustomed to the light that a golden opportunity arose to make a film about them. Mike Dilger visited on 20th January the birds performed beautifully for the camera, this was shown on the BBC One Show the following week watch here.

Since then with a few exceptions I have been able to find their roost site regularly and have been able to observe the roosting behaviour over 70 times this winter. Occasionally the birds didn’t form the roost line, they would arrive all together but appear to have ‘fallen out’. One bird would move around the others trying to start the roost but they would all move away. I am still not sure why this happened.

The birds continued to move around the roost sites and I managed to locate 8 different sites including an open hawthorn and a low dense blackthorn. The blackthorn roost was about 200 meters away from the other roosts and only used a few times. They probably had about 12 different roost sites and often used exactly the same branch to roost on in any particular site. In wet and windy conditions the birds always roosted in hollies down in sheltered part of the wood.

By early March the breeding season was approaching and some of the birds were quite aggressive towards each other as they formed the roost. On one occasion two birds locked together by their claws fell out of the roost and landed on the ground by my feet! Numbers dropped to 12 and then the flock split in two on 10th March with separate roosts in different hollies. Over the last week the roost have remained constant with 4 in one bush and 5 in the other. I have found one of their nests nearby which is now almost complete. Any day now the birds will complete their nests and roost inside them marking the end of the communal roosting season for this winter.

John Walters

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