You may remember in one of my blogs before Christmas that I was talking about my reed seed germination tests and studying the bearded tits to find out what they were feeding on, well here's a brief resume of some of the work and what I have discovered over the festive break.
Bearded tits don't just eat reed seed in the winter months, they can in fact take a whole range of small 'weed' seeds including nettle, halbard orache, willowherb, cow parsley and grass seed. But overall reed seed is very much a mainstay of their diet and because the seed panicle (reed seed head) stays on the reed stem it also interestingly stays accessible during wet and snowy conditions when seeds of other plants that have fallen to the ground are hidden. But reed seed production can be very variable from year to year and this can on some sites lead to starvation of the population.
Below - a male beardie this winter quite clearly enjoying reed seed on the panicle.
I find these little aspects of birds lives fascinating and because I'm a bit of a beardie obsessive-compulsive I've being studying all sorts of little facets of their ecology and behavior for the last 13 years or so including an annual new year survey of reed seed availability and food preference.
First of all I pick the reed seed panicles and soak them for a few hours or so
I then bag em up and put them in the airing cupboard or on the Radiators for a few days with all my washing and if I get it right hey presto the reed seed begins to germinate as below. 2014 seems to be a very productive reed seed year with my first batch of reed giving an average of 240 fertile seeds per seed head.
A rough count/guestimate of the number of germinating seeds gives a good idea how much quality seed is available for the beardies to feed on and also an indication therefore of what winter survival is likely to be if hard weather hits. Here's a table of the last few years of the research and how it relates to eruptions and wintering numbers. 2014 seems to be a very productive reed seed year with my first batch of reed giving an average of 240 fertile seeds per seed head.
Beardies will also eat other available food particularly insects and as discovered this year locally abundant seeds such as thistle which they seem to have been scoffing on Ousefleet grazing marsh.
Of course a hungry bearded tit cannot afford to overlook a protein packed food parcel such as these that I found near to where they had being feeding this year
This spider that was hiding in the reed panicles
And this Hemiptera fly - possibly Notostira Elongata
Then particularly during the cold spell a few beardies were feeding around the horse grazed areas where there were a good number of Diptera flys - this one's from the Dolochopidea family I think - yummy
All interesting stuff! But all this food availability is not completely created by accident, the reedbed habitats have been enhanced year on year via the reserves Wardening team who practically manage them with work plans informed by the types of research carried out above.
Below - Reed seed production and insect numbers can be enhanced through selective cutting of the reed - something we do a lot of at Blacktoft! It looks destructive but it is in fact a great way to bring new life to an aging reedbed
Grazing of the Koniks too seems to be adding another dimension by creating new mosaics of habitat that we as humans could not truly fully comprehend the complexities and intricacies of inter-relationships between large grazers and other species.
So next time you see a bearded tit, reed bunting or a stonechat in the reedbed, stop and have a look at what its eating and think about all the work that goes on to ensure that these birds continue to thrive in the Blacktoft reedbeds and particularly how research has helped us understand how best to do it.
I put this final photo in because it shows the tail and the patterns that we rarely see unless we are studying them - digital photography has really enhanced how things can be recorded for research and study.