Ringing the Changes – Rev Richard Clarkson and son Toby go bird ringing in Comer Woods

We were the first to arrive, apart from the volunteers who were busy setting up tables and laying out leaflets.  It was a blustery April morning but the rain held off as we settled down to wait.  We did a lot of waiting that day so I was glad that we were well supplied with coffee (for me), juice (for him), and snacks (for us both). 

Eventually a figure emerged from between the trees across the meadow and we watched as he made his way towards us.  “Just the one this time” he called out when he got within earshot, and as he reached the table where we hardy few were gathered he opened a small yellow bag and, to our joy and delight, pulled out a scraggly little Long-Tailed Tit.

According to a recent report from the British Trust for Ornithology (www.bto.org) Long-Tailed Tit populations have steadily increased over recent decades.  In this country they are one of the few species which seem to be benefitting from a changing climate, with milder spring weather driving them to lay their small clutches of eggs earlier each year.

We know this because for over a century scientists – many of them volunteers – have been studying the lives of birds by carefully catching them in mist nets, measuring them, and giving them unique identifying rings.  This is how we can track changing populations, understand migration habits, and learn about fascinating birds like the Manx Shearwater that lived for over 50 years, flying a million miles to and fro across the Atlantic during that time.

Our particular Long-Tailed Tit had no hope of flying that far, in fact she’d been caught and ringed just a couple of weeks earlier in exactly the same spot.  We watched as the BTO Ringer carefully measured her and then rather unceremoniously placed her headfirst into a tube to be weighed.  She’d lost a little under a gram since she was last caught, likely because she’d spent most of that time sitting on eggs in her distinctive oval nest.

When we think about scientific progress we might picture an Einstein-like figure standing in front of a blackboard conjuring astonishing breakthroughs out of thin air but in reality most science happens one measurement at a time, gradually and patiently building up a picture of the world.  Our Long-Tailed Tit was just going about her day when she unwittingly found herself a part of this particular bit of scientific progress – she probably wished she’d stayed on her nest.

Long tailed tit being measured and ringed
Toby Clarkson photographs a long tailed tit being measured, weighed and ringed at Comer Woods.

Back in the 19th Century the poet John Clare wrote about the Long-Tailed Tit, known colloquially as a bumbarrel or bombarrel, describing the oddling bush where bumbarrels make a nest / of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied / and warm and rich as feather-bed within.  I know that somewhere near our house there must be one of these barrel-shaped nests because for a while now our bird feeders have been regularly visited by a brood fitting the description in another of Clare’s poems: Bum-barrels twit on bush and tree / Scarce bigger than a bumble bee

We see them as often as any bird in the garden, but even so they never fail to bring delight when they arrive.  I sometimes wonder whether, had Jesus lived around here, he might have talked more about Long-Tailed Tits rather than the sparrows and ravens that crop up throughout his stories.  “not one bombarrel will fall to the ground outside of your Father’s care” certainly adds a different spin to a familiar Bible verse!

Eventually our Long-Tailed Tit had been weighed and measured and we sent her off back to her eggs with a cheer.  As the day went on the process was repeated with Blue Tits, Great Tits, Robins, and even a Chiff-Chaff who had likely made its way here from Northern Africa, but it was the little Long-Tailed Tit who stayed with me as we made our way home.  I couldn’t stop thinking about that fraction of a gram that she’d lost, and the glimpse it gave us into her otherwise mysterious life.

Every time I see a bird in the garden now I try and spot whether it’s got a ring on its leg.  But more than that, I wonder about the life of that particular bird – not as a generic Blackbird, or Jay, or Long-Tailed Tit, but as an individual with its own story, its own journey, its own life, known and loved by its creator. 

Comer Woods is part of the National Trust’s Dudmaston Hall estate in Shropshire