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  • Writer's picturePeter Howarth

Chasing Beardies

I mentioned in a previous post that I am now focusing my attention on photographing particular species of birds. The Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) is the bird that started it all. A small brown bird, that to me looks out of place in the British country side. After finally setting my sights on these amazing birds, I quickly realised that to photograph them I would need to do a bit of research into their habits. I did some reading and asked questions, in time I learnt some key bits of information.

In spring and summer these birds are primarily insectivores spending most of there time hunting in amongst the reeds. This makes them incredibly difficult to find. In late autumn and early winter as the insect population decreases their diet switches over to mostly seed. To cope with this change in diet the Bearded Tits begin eating grit to help digest the seeds they eat. This change also makes them more predictable as every other morning they go and consume grit for the coming weeks feeding.

A gentleman called John Wilson (the first warden on the RSPB reserve Leighton Moss) became fascinated by this behaviour; and with permissions had several grit trays built within Leighton Moss. The trays allowed him to study the birds and record trends he noticed. The trays provide a constant supply of fine grit for the birds to feed on during the winter months.

After reading about the trays I set out to see my first Bearded Tits. I arrived at around 9am and started my walk towards the gritting trays, I arrived at the trays 10 or 15 minutes later. This was my first mistake. On arrival to the trays I was hit by a bitter wind blowing through the reeds, here was mistake two. I later found out Bearded Tits hate the wind and tend to be most active in the early morning.

Armed with this new information I changed my approach. I monitored the local weather forecast looking for mild days with wind speeds under 8mph. I picked my day and waited.

Up and out at the crack of dawn I sped towards my destination, the thought of Bearded Tits spurring me on. I am greeted at the trays by two photographers who proceed to tell me the Beardies had just been and gone. This news hit me like a freight train... Had I missed them? Would they come back? Is it too late for them? All these questions and more were floating round my head as I stood waiting.

After 40 minutes or so of standing in silence there was a rustling in the reeds, I looked towards the source of the disturbance and into the eyes of a beautiful male Bearded Tit. I cannot put into words the mix of emotions that came over me. I sat staring into that amazing face for what felt like ages, until the sound of camera shutters pulled me back. My heart was in my throat as I lined up my shots, pressed my shutter and prayed I was hitting focus. After the first initial burst I looked up from the viewfinder to see 8 birds feeding in front of me. I moved from subject to subject to excited to think about composition, I just wanted proof I had seen these wonderful birds.

D7500 Sigma 150-600c 1/320 sec at f /6.3 ISO 1600

The initial group hung around for about 10 minutes, they visited three more times that morning. The more I saw them the more I thought about what I was shooting and ended up capturing the moment I was looking for.

D7500 Sigma 150-600c 1/320 sec at f./6.3 ISO 900

I have since seen Bearded Tits on multiple occasions and yet the thrill I get has stayed the same. There is just something about them that makes me giddy with excitement. Sadly they stop gritting in early December so sightings become more happen chance. One thing is for sure, I can't wait to see them again.

D7500 Sigma 150-600c 1/320 sec at f./6.3 ISO 1400

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