David Wood, Site Manager for The Oa nature reserve tells us about one of Islay’s lesser-known birding spectacles and why Twite should be more in the spotlight.

A couple of isolated sycamore trees sit next to The Oa reserve office. At this time of year they buzz. Every autumn the reserve hosts one of the largest flocks of Twite in the UK. As they perch, awaiting the all clear to drop back onto the fields and fences, they chatter in the way that only Twite can.

When I talk to people about Twite, I’m often well into my ramblings when they ask – ‘’what’s a Twite?’ I pause, and then remember how lucky we are to see these birds in numbers every year. This small subtle finch is easily overlooked, but a close look reveals beautiful soft plumage tones, a neat yellow bill and the occasional surprise flash of a bright pink rump. The appearance gives no indication of what tough little birds these are, living in harsh upland habitats, nesting in remote stands of bracken or heather and feeding only on small flower seeds. Flocks of thousands used to winter along the shores of England’s south-eastern counties but now they are nearly lost as a breeding species in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and declining in Scotland. A double figure count is now a good sighting in most parts of the UK. Thanks to a stronger Scottish population and the targeted crops we grow to provide seed, The Oa’s Twite flock has become an important annual event. Not just for the nature reserve but for the UK’s Twite population as a whole. In a couple of recent years, the flock has reached over a thousand birds. The average peak flock size over the last 10 years is just under 500, usually reaching its height in November. At present we have just over 450 birds dodging the daily attentions of Merlins, Sparrowhawks and Hen Harriers.


Twite ringing

Next week we will be attempting to catch some of the flock, under license from the BTO. By giving them individual number/letter coded leg rings, these birds can be identified in the field, and from re-sightings and recaptures we can learn more about this population. In 3 years since 2017 we have managed to ring 340 birds. Data gathered is helping us to understand the breeding and wintering movements of these birds, look at annual survival rates, local breeding abundance and contributing to work on Twite population genetics.

Into the Red

Despite the good numbers that can still be seen on Islay and elsewhere in Scotland, Twite are a Red Listed bird, due to breeding population declines. The Red List contains the UK’s most ‘at risk’ birds, now at 70 species, more than doubling over the last three decades.

This unwanted fame gets them a couple of pages in the new ‘Into the Red’ book, published by the BTO. Here, The Oa features strongly again, with RSPB ambassador Indy Kiemel Greene writing about his best Twite watching experience, which just happened to be on The Oa, and the reserves Site Manager providing the artwork. The book is a collaboration of 70 authors and artists, with profits going to helping Red Listed birds, so please consider buying a copy at https://www.bto.org/our-science/publications/bto-books-and-guides/red

Ringed Twite photo copyright of Phill Catton