Spotting reedbed-dwelling birds is tricky at the best of times, but more so in winter as only one songbird is resident year-round – the bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus). Their common name is somewhat of a misnomer as they are neither bearded nor tits, though with their “ping pong ball on a lolly stick” body shape, they do bear a passing resemblance to long-tailed tits. They are also referred to as bearded parrotbills or bearded reedlings – given that they are entirely dependent on reedbed habitat for their survival, the latter seems most fitting.
At this time of year “beardies” tend to feed out of sight, fossicking through the soil in search of fallen seeds. Their tonal plumage makes it difficult to pick them out as they flit through the bleached stands of Phragmites australis, but eventually I caught sight of a flutter of movement deep in the vegetation. I raised my binoculars for a closer view, but the dense reed monoculture lacked any prominent features to use as a visual point of reference, so I immediately lost sight of my quarry.
Gazing into the reedbed felt a lot like looking at a magic eye puzzle. As the cane-like stems swayed in the breeze, my vision began to blur. The key to finding the bird’s hidden form was to diverge my eyes and focus as though I was looking through the reeds instead of at them. Suddenly I was able to pick out a tiny, globular body perched between two stems, its legs splaying into the splits as it clung like a stilt walker to its wavering vertical perches.
Bearded tits are sexually dimorphic and even at a distance there was no mistaking that this was a male. While both sexes have rich cinnamon-brown plumage, males’ heads are bluish-grey and they sport conspicuous drooping moustaches and bold black lower tail coverts.
Two more beardies skimmed over, their presence betrayed by echoing metallic calls reminiscent of the end-of-line “ping” of a typewriter bell. The male flew up to join them and the trio rapidly disappeared from sight.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010