Freaky Great Tits (in english)

End of October I was visiting the German Island Helgoland where Martin R. and I noticed that almost every Great Tit uttered a strange call I have never heard before (at least not knowingly).

It was a phylloscopus-like „weeh weeh weeh“. Some other birders also noticed these tits and confirmed that this is an unknown call. I asked some friends in southern Germany to check if the tits had also reached this part of the country.

About the invasion

Some days later, on 28th of October, Matthias H. told me that he had heard the first strange calling Great Tit at Lake Constance. On November the 4th, Matthias and I were counting migrating passerines there for 6,25 hours: We had about 450 Great Tits – and 30 % of these used the other call! If you consider that surely not every bird calls this way during its short fly-by, you can assume that about 60-80% of the birds were the freaky ones. Now they amount everywhere in Germany to about 60-90 % of the Great Tits.

The days with the highest counts of these birds were the 12th of October (Jochen Dierschke) on Helgoland (Northern Germany), the 16th and 18th of October in Nordfriesland (Northern Germany), and the 4th of November at Lake Constance.

Latest records of the freaky calling Great Tits. Still there are only a few reported observations – but that doesn’t mean that the birds are not out there! They are everywhere and common. Source: www.ornitho.de 

Description of the call
The call is repeated 1-4 times. The single elements rise in the beginning from 3.5 kHz to 5.5 kHz and drop in the following a little bit more quietly to 2.5 kHz.

 

Sonogram of the call of one of the freaky Tits. Helgoland, 18.10.2012. Here you can listen to the recording. In the background you can hear Blackbird at 0:06, Goldcrest 0:27 and Brambling at 0:35. Perfect recording! Can you hear the wingbeats at 0:15? Almost surely a Thrush, that falls down from the sky and lands in a bush © Matthias Feuersenger

Comparision of recordings from ”invasion-Great Tits” from different parts of Germany. The recordings are linked with the locations of the recordings. Recording Helgoland (same as above) 18.10.2012 © Matthias Feuersenger; Eriskircher Ried 3.11.2012 (Carrion Crow, Black-headed Gull and Mallard in background) © Matthias Hemprich;  Brunsbüttel 16.10.2012 (Chaffinch in the background) © Peter Schleef, St. Peter-Böhl 18.10.2012 © Peter Schleef; Whylen 8.11.2012 © Daniel Kratzer

The variation is – except the number of repetitions – very little. The auditory impression is always the same. Sometimes the complete first element is 100-200 Hz higher than the second (look at the sonogram from Whylen, Eriskircher Ried & Brunsbüttel). Sometimes the frequency at the beginning and the end is aligned (look at the sonogram Eriskircher Ried & St. Peter-Böhl).

Most other calls of these Great Tits were the same as the calls from our Great Tits. Peter Schleef heard and recorded some further calls that are not uttered by our Great Tits. But they are not as characteristic as the “weeh”. Jochen Dierschke and Matthias Feuersenger heard some of the Great Tits call like a Blue Tit (www.club300.de).

There seem to be no plumage features differing from the “normal” Great Tits. Anyway, here are some photos of three different „Freaky Great Tits“:

Freaky Great Tit, adult male, 24.10.2012, Helgoland © R. Martin

Freaky Great Tit, adult male, 24.10.2012, Helgoland. Here you can listen to the calls of this bird © R. Martin

Freaky Great Tit, 23.10.2012, Helgoland © R. Martin

For comparison, two „normal“ birds from Karlsruhe, January 2010:

“normale” Kohlmeise, Adultes Männchen, 17.01.2010, Karlsruhe © R. Martin / For comparison, here are two photos of the “normal” Great Tits. 

Have birds with these calls already been in Germany/Europe in other years? I don’t think so – but if they have, then probably just single birds. Nobody I asked had ever knowingly heard these calls. Some birders didn’t notice the calls. But they said this was probably because they have got used to this call over the last weeks.

So there are two possibilities:

1. The Great Tits learned the call spontaneously this year -> absolutely unrealistic because of the high numbers, distribution (at least Germany, Finland, France, Belgium, Swiss, Estonia) and the little variation of the calls.

2. These Great Tits are from a population that hasn’t been involved in an invasion to our region in the last years.

Origin
Where do these birds come from? Glutz (1993) says that Great Tits can migrate in almost every direction, with the evasion spots usually being Fennoscandia and Russia. There are many recordings from Scandinavia in xeno-canto – but none of the Great Tits calls from there is similar. So this can’t be the origin. In the last days there have been some records of ringed Tits from the Baltic states (www.club300.de and Fabian Meijer‘s Blog). So there are birds from the northeast in Middle Europe but I don’t think this is the real origin; most birds that are getting ringed there, for example at the ornithological station Rossitten, are migrants. So the birds probably come from further east. Also, Glutz (1993) states that the baltic birds regularly occur in Europe – therefore not the probable origin.

In xeno-canto there is a recording from Cheboksary in Russia (about 600 km east of Moscow). The shape of the sonogram is very similar but the calls are 1 kHz too high (reaching from 3,5-6,4 kHz). Maybe a hint? I asked A. Lastukhin, but he doesn’t know these calls and can’t give any further information.

Sonogram of a Great Tit from Cheboksary , Russia, 03.10.2012. Very similar shape, but too high! © Alber Lastukhin. You can listen to the recording here (http://www.xeno-canto.org/110451). In the background you can hear Robin, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Chaffinch.

So, how about an origin in the north-easternmost part of Europe? From the region north/northeast of Moscow? I think this is the most likely solution.

Questions & Summary

How far do these Great Tits migrate? Italy, Spain? Iceland had its 5th record of a Great Tit on 25.10.2012. Is it one of these birds? Unfortunately, the icelandic birders couldn’t confirm this up to date. But I am still hoping for an answer.

Is there any relation to the influx of the Northern Bullfinches with the trumpeting calls or the White-headed Long-tailed Tits? And will the calls be a common part of the repertoire of our Great Tits in future? If so many birds are here, I don’t think that they all will migrate back to Russia. And will new birds of this population reach Middle-Europe every year now, as the Bullfinches?

Fascinating questions!

Thanks for the usage of the recordings, data and discussions go out to: Matthias Feuersenger, Peter Schleef, Matthias Hemprich, Daniel Kratzer, Jo Honold and Jochen Dierschke. And thanks Jo for your help with the translation!

Literature

Glutz, Urs M. (1993) Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas Band 13/I. AULA-Verlag GmbH

Eine Antwort zu “Freaky Great Tits (in english)

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