The Race to First Flight

Wednesday 17 May started grey, cool and windy with sunshine by lunchtime and then showers in the evening (max 13C).

Here is the first colour image of a couple of the chicks, taken yesterday as a test exposure while mum was safely out of the box. I hope to get more colour images in the next couple of days as I get the parents used to my presence.


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I have watched the adults as they have 'processed' mealworms at the feeder and today I took a closer look at what they did. My suspicions were confirmed when I found mealworm heads below the string used by the male to do the food preparation. I also observed that he pulls out the digestive tract and discards that as well. I wonder if they treat the other insects they catch in a similar fashion. The following pictures show a few of the discarded heads that I collected and a discarded digestive tract ( which measures about 2cm in length).

Thursday 18 May - A day of sunshine and showers (max 14C). For much of the day, the chicks have stayed huddled together in what is increasingly a fluffy mass.Their heads are completely covered in feathers now and on a couple of chicks it is becoming possible to see the banding of light and dark as they start to take on the blue tit markings. They do still possess the clumps of long downy feathers at the sides of their heads that have been there since hatching.

These pictures show mum choosing which chick is to receive the next feed (a small insect). The chick gets pulled up quite a long way as it is fed.

Their fronts have a covering of white feathers and when they present their rear ends to have their droppings removed we have a chance to see the developing tail (Left pic). There are still broad bands of bare skin down the sides of their backs although these are only seen when wings are raised. The wing feathers are growing longer and the chicks have started exercising their wings with the occasional bouts of rapid flapping (right pic)- nest mates need to duck when this happens!


In some chicks the area around the eyes, which only a couple of days ago stood out clearly (see Tuesday's pictures) is now just starting to blend in with the feather patterns on the rest of the head.

During one particularly heavy, prolonged shower this afternoon the male sheltered under the cover of our verandah. He spent the time investigating all the nooks and crannies.

Friday 19 May, a day of sunshine and showers (max 15C). Today my attention has been divided between two very different fliers, the blue tits and the space shuttle Atlantis as it launched on its way to the International Space Station. So it has been one eye on both bird box TV's and the other on NasaTV on the web.

For the blue tits it has been business as usual with almost non-stop food deliveries. The black and white images provided by the IR cameras show the group of chicks as a dark fluffy/feathery mass as they huddle together in the cup of the nest as the weather remains cool and damp. It has been interesting to see how the cup has gradually migrated across the box over the last few days.

I have to turn down the volume of the sound in the house now as there is a constant chirping by the chicks.

At about mid-day I spent some time at the box watching the activities directly and taking some photographs. They have become fairly used to my moving about in the box by now, although every sound that is made is transferred though the wooden structure.

As with the previous colour photograph there is an option to look at a larger version. Each time this is about 50KB in size.

The first two pictures of the chicks give you a chance to see the degree of development so far. In the right hand picture you can see the pink colour of the bare area behind the wing.


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The next two pictures show different aspects of feeding. In the left picture dad is gutting a mealworm. In the right picture mum has just provided a caterpillar meal.


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Saturday 20 May , a sunny morning soon deteriorated to cloud (15C at midday). I spent a short time watching the nest when I changed the glass panel this morning. During that time the male arrived with a very large green caterpillar. He kept still long enough for me to take a good look at it and see that the head was missing, just like the mealworms. So perhaps the food preparation I have seen at the feeder is a normal part of the blue tit's behaviour. The caterpillar seemed to be too big for the chicks to cope with so after a while the male took it back out of the box, returning quickly with it looking decidedly smaller!

Another interesting observation this morning was that for the first time I saw a chick vibrating its wings as it begged for food. We usually associate this behaviour with the fledglings we see in the garden as they follow their parents around in the hunt for food. Coincidently, I am seeing the first appearance of this season's house sparrow fledglings this morning, doing exactly the same thing on the branches of the Hawthorn. The first starling fledglings appeared on Thursday.



Here are some images grabbed this evening. This one gives some idea as to how close the chicks are getting to look like blue tits.




A peaceful scene of all eight chicks in a circle (left) is soon disrupted when mum returns with food

The left hand picture below shows a chick taking the chance to spread its wings as dad deals with its rear end. It gives us a chance to see how the flight feathers are growing.

The right hand picture make one wonder how glad the chicks will be to leave in a couple of days, having had to put up with regular squashing by mum!


I did some counting today and came up with the following

The female was awake by 4.45am and left the box at 4.58am just before the male brought in the first food delivery. Between then and 8.25pm, when the female returned for the night, the parents made a staggering 663 deliveries, 197 by mum and 466 by dad.

Sunday 21 May, On a cool, showery day the chicks really are miniature blue tits now, with well developed feather coverings and all eight looking healthy. I have taken a couple of colour photographs today which may be added tomorrow. The cool conditions have meant that they have stayed huddled together all day again today.

The parents have been as busy as ever, starting just before 5am and still going strong until about 7.30pm when things started to slow down before mum entered the box for the night at 8.20pm

I have not been counting the feeding visits today but it has looked every bit as busy as yesterday. I have noticed over these last two days at least that the female only rarely visits the mealworm feeder now. The male on the other hand has sessions when he is back and fore between the box and the feeder many times. These are interspersed with trips up our road, probably to the small nature reserve about a hundred yards away where there are some oak trees. The female has brought back caterpillars, but she is just as likely to bring other insects and spiders.

A look at a video recording I made through Saturday night / Sunday morning showed how difficult it was for the female to get much rest. Those times she did try to settle on top of the chicks they wriggled out from under her and she had to move to the side. While there is more space on the 'eastern' side(by the entrance) she always prefered the right hand corner next to the glass, where she was always in contact with at least one chick. She is already favouring the same place tonight.

Monday 22 May A day with sunny periods started for the blue tits with mum leaving the box at 4.55am and dad arriving with the first feed two minutes later. The day then progressed much as yesterday, until the evening. It has, however, ended with the chicks being left alone for the night.

Dad made a series of evening feeding/toilet visits up to 8.05pm.Mum made a brief visit to the nest at 7.45pm and then was not seen again until 8.22pm. She went through her usual routine of 'housekeeping', burrowing down into the nest cup all around the now sleeping chicks. By 8.45 she was starting to rest, with her eyes closing some of the time. However, as was the case over the last few nights, every time she rested she was buffetted by the chicks. By 10pm she had left the nest.

The chicks have been exercising their wings more today so it looks as though maiden flights could be scheduled for tomorrow. The weather forcast is bad, with rain all day.

During the afternoon I spent some time in the box watching the nest and taking some photographs. However, I made a silly mistake when preparing my camera before hand and as a result most of the photographs were bin fodder. Here is one that I could rescue. It shows clearly the untidy nature of the nest. Do not be mislead by the blackness of the entrance hole, It was actually overcast but quite light outside but I did not attempt to compensate for that when I took the photograph..




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Tuesday 23 May A dull, overcast morning with no rain turned into a wet and cold afternoon (max 14C).

At 5am the male arrived for the first feeding, the chicks had already been alert and waiting for about 10 minutes. He then made a further 15 visits before the female made her first appearance at 5.20am, bringing the first caterpillar of the day. For most of the day the chicks showed no interest in going near the entrance of the box and remained in their huddle at the back of the nest waiting for the next food delivery.

In the early evening a couple of them did venture a bit closer to the entrance and spend some time flapping wings and looking out but eventually they returned to the huddle. Dad fed them for the last time just after 8pm and at 8.25pm mum came into the box without any food and spent the next five minutes doing 'housework' around and under the chicks. She left the nest at 8.30 and by 8.45pm the chicks had settled down and were sleeping in the restless way we have grown used to.

Wednesday 24 May - The day started bright and sunny, but by the end of the afternoon there was complete cloud cover and it was raining and the chicks are still in the box!

Dad arrived with the first feed of the morning at 5.04am and mum ten minutes later. Feeding has gone on at a furious pace all day.

The chicks are very active now with lots of preening and wing flapping. A couple of times I have seen a chick pecking at the sides of the box, perhaps the first attempts at looking for its own food. In the morning the chicks showed an increasing interest in the box entrance, gradually taking closer looks until one actually climbed up to get a good look out. This had me scurrying down the garden to set up my tripod. However as the sky became overcast the interest dwindled and as the temperature and light level dropped they returned to their huddle. Perhaps they will try again tomorrow.

These pictures are of a group of quite agitated chicks at 10.30am and a chick contemplating the bright world outside.

Here are a few colour photographs that I took on Tuesday and Wednesday. They are a bit too dark in places so when I have more time I will be rescanning them to get a better result.

These first two show the male providing a mealworm and then a caterpillar. The left hand picture, taken yesterday is the only colour image so far to show all eight chicks.


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The left hand image gives us a chance to see some wing detail as a chick exercises. I have included the left picture because of the stare!


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Looking out at the big green tree.




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Thursday 25 May A sunny day with the constant threat of squally showers.

At 4pm today is becoming a rerun of yesterday with the chicks getting very close to taking the plunge but not quite making it. One actually got right into the hole, head outside and claws over the edge, but then retired back to the gloom of the box where there is a lot of preening, flapping and pecking at the wood going on. The parents, in the meantime have been working overtime to bring food.

Evening saw the chicks quite agitated for a while when the feeding stopped by 8pm and they were left alone for the night. They settled down by 8.30pm and at 10.20 the box is strangely peacful.

An interesting event caught my eye while I was waiting for the blue tits to fly. Our female blackbird appeared, earthworm in beak, on my neighbour's apple tree which is adjacent to the 'Ivy tree' that is at the bottom of my garden near the box. After pausing for a few seconds she disappeared into the ivy and I could hear a feint chirping. She was followed soon after by the male, also with a worm. This means there is a second brood which is brilliant considering that after a single offspring appeared in mid-April she was savaged by something and was literally grounded for a couple of weeks with a damaged wind and tail. She spent a great deal of time dashing up and down the garden and kept herself well fed, often resting in the safety of the Burberris bush. She was gradually recovering and making her way higher up in the shrubbery when she disappeared and I thought we had lost her. She must have been sitting on egg(s).

Just after I saw the blackbirds a wren made its way across between me and the bird box. I have got to capture it on film one day.

Friday 26 May - Departure Day. By 6.30am this morning the incredible efforts of two hardworking blue tit parents paid off when eight healthy youngsters took to the wing for the first time.

The morning started as the chicks woke up around 5am. By the time dad made his first visit at 5.07 they were starting to move about. He did not bring any food on his first visit but he returned with a mealworm at 5.15am. Mum appeared at 5.20 and on her second visit 5 minutes later she did her usual bout of housekeeping at the bottom of the nest.

Between then and about 6.15 the parents came to the nest 30 times with food. They did not come into the nest again after this time. By now the chicks were gathered around the entrance and a number of feeds took place without the adults entering the box. As the moment approached the anticipation in the box was overwhelming and any chick perching in the opening for more than a few moments was likely to get its backside pecked.

Then at 6.28, as the call of a parent could be heard outside, the bustling seemed to stop as one by one they made their departure. The last one seemed to hesitate for a bit before it made a last trip around the box, put on a display flight for the camera (see below) and then headed for the door to follow the rest of the family into the great unknown.

It all happened too early for me to capture with a still camera (- I did not wake up until 7am!) so the video recording provides the only images of the event. Here are three that sum up those last few moments.

The first picture shows the moment the first of the chicks is about to leave

The second image was the last chicks farewell to the camera as it tests its wings

and finally, as it gets ready to take to the air

Well, this has been quite a learning process and daytime TV will not be the same for a long time to come. You read about the nesting process in books and see it on wildlife programmes but nothing beats the real thing. It took 6 years of waiting and when it happened I was not prepared for what was to come but it was worth every minute of the wait. I know that many people will wonder what the fuss was, after all they were only blue tits, but the experience has gripped us completely, and if it has helped the local population to survive another year then the whole thing will have been worth it.

There is no sign of the family in the garden now, but as I write this the male has just been for a mealworm, which it processed on the string, as usual, before heading back up the street. I will keep the feeder stocked for the next day or two just in case they are needed.

PS. At 6pm, after day of almost continuous rain, both parents are still coming to the feeder and taking away mealworms.

At 8.30pm a very wet mum returned to the box and within a couple of minutes she had snuggled down into what is left of the nest cup.

Tuesday 13 June - A belated postscript to the diary.

After the family left the box on the Friday, Saturday was a quiet day with only a couple of glimpses of any blue tits at all. It seemed as though the previous day's wind had blown them away. For the next week I was away from home, enjoying a thoroughly damp week in a corner of Cornwall ( it WAS enjoyable !). One of the highlights was sitting on a headland watching a basking shark that was not in a rush to pass by.

When I returned the following weekend there was more sign of blue tit activity in the trees in the surrounding gardens. Leaf cover made it difficult to do any reliable counting but over the next few days I was able to count a group of at least six birds moving between the gardens.

On Tuesday 7 June I could hear a group of BT young in my neighbour's beech tree and an adult, which could have been 'our' male made frequent trips to the mealworm feeder. Each time the mealworm was prepared exactly as when the chicks were in the box. The female (?) also made some visits during this time.

Since that day I have seen only occasional Blue tit visitors in the garden and the box shows no sign of having been used for roosting since Friday 26 May. I think it it time to switch off the cameras and to start planning the modifications to the box that I want to carry out before next spring.

I must not forget the blackbirds. On Wednesday 8 June their second brood left the nest and spent most of the day perched silently in a neighbour's apple tree as the mum scoured the garden for food. Her damaged wing is almost completely back to normal now. At one time she managed to pick up 14 mealworms in her beak - it was quite a sight. Since then they have remained very secretive and I have not yet seen the young on the groung in the garden, although both parents appear quite frequently.

I am still trying to establish if there are wrens nesting at the bottom of the garden. There is a lot of activity but ....

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The Chicks Hatch - The first seven days

The Chicks - The next six days

Year 2000 Diary