Beardies

© David Phillips

One of Farlington Marshes' most iconic birds has been putting on a show for visitors in recent weeks

I was sent some lovely photos of one of Farlington Marshes' most iconic birds the other day and it prompted me to do a quick bit on them as they really are very special.

Bearded Tits are a reed bed specialist and as such a pain to view. I would say though that Farlington has to be one of the best places in the area to see them, especially at this time of year.

On a sunny day with little wind they will venture on to the top of the reed to feed upon the seed heads. There is a growing population down there and a lucky encounter from the viewpoint on the western sea wall can mean anywhere from 15 to 30 can be seen.

But what makes them so special and such specialists? Interestingly they are not tits at all, like blue tits or great tits. In fact they aren't even called bearded tits. Panuris biamicus in latin has been the only constant name. Bearded reedling originally it has now been lumped in with the parrotbills as the bearded parrotbill and hence not really related to any other bird species in the UK.

It is a beautiful and illusive bird. They are communal, especially in the winter when they form a large flock or several smaller ones. In the summer they breed in loose colonies, building nests in the dead layers of reed near the base of the stems. They're preference for this lower nest sites leaves them very vulnerable to fluctuations in water levels.

Like many farmland birds they swap their diets according to the availability dictated by the seasons. In summer when they are feeding  young, they pluck invertebrates from the stems of the reeds and surrounding vegetation. They are particularly fond of spiders according to one study.

During winter when bugs are less prevalent, they turn to the main staple of the reed bed, the seed.  During this time they are very fond of consuming grit which they need to help grind the seed up.

Bearded tit in the reeds at Farlington Marshes

© David Phillips

The birds themselves are sexually dimorphic meaning that the males look different to the females. Males are obvious with their striking blue head and black moustachial stripes. Females and juveniles are much duller but still a beautiful chestnut brown.

They are a very niche species, only occurring in reed beds but not in all reed beds. There are a number of factors that must be there for them to colonise. Water stability is a key factor. I worked previously on a reed bed much larger than Farlington's but there were no bearded tits. This was in part because the water constantly swung widely from flood to drought all through the year. This not only makes nesting incredibly difficult but also washes away the invertebrate communities upon which they depend on in the summer.

Another important factor is seed quality. Some reed beds are mostly formed from clonal reeds, meaning that they do not breed and hence create little or poor quality seed. The seed heads at Farlington Marshes seem to be bursting with seed and so favoured by the bearded tits.

We do some management of the reed bed but not huge amounts. I plan to start cutting areas  next winter. This maintains the quality of the reed and the health of the reed bed, which would dry out over time due to the accumulation of dead reed. there is also evidence to suggest that newly cut areas are favoured by many bird species, including beardies as the new growth attracts more invertebrates.

Certainly you get a higher number of reed warblers nesting as they like to nest near the edge of reed beds and cutting areas increases that reed edge.