Every year on the RSPB Scotland Oa reserve we plant some crops that are left to go to seed, to act as giant bird feeders. Most years this attracts a mixed finch flock, with an impressive 500 or so twite and smaller numbers of linnet, chaffinch and greenfinch. We have refined our planting over the years, to provide the maximum amount of food possible for twite, growing mostly their favoured fodder radish, which produces an abundance of small oily seeds in the late autumn. This year, by late October the twite flock had reached it's usual 500ish, but then it just kept growing. It became too big to count easily, due to their restless nature, so we developed a high tech answer involving a camera and some sticky tape.
Photographing the flock as it settled in a short grass field in front of the office, allowed us to get a much more accurate count. The peak count came on 17th November when the photographs revealed a flock of 1114 twite. From discussions with some twite experts around the country it appears this is far and away the largest gathering of twite anywhere in the UK. In the 1980's this size of flock was much more common, but declines, particularly in England and Wales, have turned this gathering into something special.
The sight and sound of a 1000+ strong flock of twite on the Oa this autumn/winter has been spectacular. This number of small birds regularly attracts the attention of birds of prey and we are lucky enough to witness regular hen harrier, peregrine, merlin and sparrowhawk hunts, mostly ending in failure for the hunter but with enough promise to keep them coming back for another go. Despite having food provided, the life of a twite must be a nervy existence.
A near constant buzzing and trilling comes from the flock, with occasional lapses into complete silence, sometimes followed by the whole flock flushing and swirling from their perches due to some perceived threat, or a swift resumption of the chatter. By late December the bird crop had started to run out of seed and the flock began to dwindle, leaving us now with about 200-300 birds. This is still a significant group of twite, but I'm already looking forward to next autumn for the return of the bigger numbers and maybe an even bigger count.
Video clips Copyright of RSPB, filmed by Jesse Wilkinson