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Bearded Tit, RSPB Minsmere

Hard by what should logically be called the West Hide one individual pinged in the reeds. I thought that would be it but the bird – strangely just one – kept calling close to the path and I followed until I hit paydirt. Barely five feet from me the restless shape paused long enough for a sighting of warm brown tones and the moustachial comma that gives the species its name.

The bearded part of its name, that is. The bird isn’t a tit though. It’s near, but in a separate family – its own family moreover. It has no close relatives. What makes it that sort of an oddity is a phylogenetic (i.e. something to do with DNA) relationship with larks, which follow the Paridae in the IOU’s taxonomy. Panurus biarmicus acts like a missing link.

Anyhow, I hadn’t seen bearded tit for a couple of years since Leighton Moss. Another species also not seen this year was yellow-legged gull, of which three stood out among streaky-headed herring gulls. That’s the best distinction between the species when they’re standing in water, as gulls tend to. It’s then easy to persuade oneself that the inkling of leg on view is yellow.

Other early winter denizens of Minsmere were: one marsh harrier wisely not braving the killing fields of Malta; burgeoning flocks of shoveler, gadwall and wigeon; offshore goldeneyes, scoters, Brent geese and red-breasted mergansers; and not much in the wader department – a few lapwings and black-tailed godwits.

The next day’s route back to the Midlands took in Fen Drayton and Grafham Water – both in my almost virgin county of Cambridgeshire. The RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton produced the “usual suspects”, including a very dark buzzard. One could have mistaken it for a raven. Grafham was quiet early in the afternoon and, worse, entirely without victuals in the café. A couple of bullfinches alone were of interest. It was a downbeat ending for two exploratory days away.

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