During the winter, dark days of wild storms can give way to the perfect, glistening stillness of a frost encrusted forest, its wondrous beauty and nature at its utmost. Though winter is tough for wildlife, food is in limited supply and day lengths are short, especially for small birds and finding enough food to survive takes up every daylight hour.
For one such bird, unusual in that there are only 2 or possibly 3 songbirds that have a crest, is the charismatic crested tit or as it is affectionately known ‘Punk of the Pine Forest'.
Like the capercaillie, this stunning little bird is also a relic of the ancient Caledonian pine forests and thereby confined to only a small pocket of remnant pine woods in the Scottish Highlands. Its Scottish population has increased in recent decades, perhaps as a result of an expansion of native pine forests and/or relatively mild winters. The breeding population of Scottish cresties can fluctuate between an estimate 1000 – 2000 breeding pairs, but by autumn the population may have increase to between 5,500 – 7,900 individual birds.
The crested tit may at first appear a little dull, but is one of the most sought after birds in the Scottish Highlands. It can be difficult to locate, but an easy bird to recognise; besides its obvious erectile crest, the tip of which is often recurved, its gorget and collar are distinctive. Like other member of the titmouse family it is constantly vocal, uttering a zee, zee, zee contact call similar to that of a coal tit. Although not shy, it is not always easily approached and probably best seen between autumn and spring.
In winter birds foresake the high canopy, where they fed on the rich abundance of insects and pine seeds for much of the summer, to feed on lower branches and even foraging on the ground in search of food during cold weather. This winter, with snow laying for much of the time between late November and early April, the birds were most obvious if you knew where to look. With the arrival of lengthening days in April they become less apparent having dispersed back into the forests where they are highly territorial during the breeding season. Only through surveys/census work later in early summer will we discover for certain how they have survived the past harsh winter months.