Western Morning News (Saturday)
Little lookalike living on the brink
Charlie Elder goes in search of a willow tit – a bird that is as hard to identify as it is to find
Some birds come in pairs – lookalikes that have evolved to confuse birdwatchers and are tricky to tell apart unless you get a good view.
Close matches like the willow warbler and chiffchaff are famously similar in appearance and it took the observations of Hampshire naturalist Rev Gilbert White in the 1700s to first determine that they were different species – largely based on their songs.
It took even longer to unravel the coupling of the marsh tit and willow tit – mirror images that were not split apart until the late 19th century.
In 1897 two German ornithologists were looking through trays of small bird skins at the British Museum when they noticed two that appeared to have been wrongly labelled. The slight plumage differences, subtle enough to have been overlooked before, were enough to distinguish the birds as distinct species.
Just like the willow warbler and chiffchaff, their looks may be similar but their calls are very different – the marsh tit giving a sneezing ‘ pit-choo!’ while the willow tit makes a harsh and nasal ‘ zaah, zaah’ sound.
Sadly, like a number of woodland species, the populations of both are falling steeply and the latest UK State of Birds report, published in December, describes the rarer of the two, the willow tit, as “the fastest declining resident bird in the UK”.
Numbers are down a staggering 94% since 1970, and by a third over the last decade. There are believed to be fewer than 3,000 pairs in the whole of the UK. And while the marsh tit is ten times more common than the willow tit, its population is also plummeting at an alarming rate.
The names are a bit confusing as the willow tit is more closely associated with damp places than the marsh tit, living in thickets of birch, alder and willow close to water and, unusually for a small bird, excavating its own nest holes. Too many deer grazing the under-storey is thought to reduce sources of invertebrate food, seeds and berries that may have contributed to the species’ decline, along with a lack of rotten wood in which to chisel nest holes and the loss, fragmentation and deterioration of damp woodland habitat.
Given they have become such a national scarcity, willow tits are far from easy to see, and I have seldom come across them. So I decided it was high time I caught up with one and met up on a freezing morning late last month with a dedicated enthusiast at an area on the Devon and Cornwall border which remains one of the notable Westcountry refuges for this species.
About ten years ago, on retiring from working at GCHQ in Bude, Rod Mudge was handed a choice of magazines by his daughter and asked to pick a hobby for his years of retirement ahead: photography or birdwatching.
He chose the latter and hasn’t looked back, now helping with various surveys and, crucially, keeping a close eye on the population of willow tits that live around the Tamar Lakes reservoirs, which are managed by the South West Lakes Trust.
Rod, who lives in Northam in North Devon, said that initially he put up a few seed feeders beside the car park of the Lower Tamar Lake which he could observe out of sight from the comfort of his car. “I saw a couple of birds that
I was not sure about when it came to identification and took photos and contacted someone at the Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society who told me they were marsh tits and rare willow tits, so I kept the feeders going,” he said.
“When people moved into a house nearby with cats I shifted the feeders further away and put several around and found I had willow tits at every feeding station.”
Rod now tops up four sets of feeders every three days, paying for the
feed out of his own pocket, and carried out a survey several years ago which found there were around eight pairs of willow tits living in the narrow corridors of woodland surrounding the lower lake, and three pairs beside the upper lake – a significant population for the South West.
We followed a muddy track beside the lower lake, past a scattering of carp fishermen hunkered down in tents brewing tea at the water’s edge after a night’s fishing. A short distance along we turned off and headed through an area of trees of mixed ages, their roots in wet soil amid tangles of bramble and branches laden with moss. Rod pointed out three feeders hanging from a tree, with a buffet choice of seed mix, peanuts or fat balls laid on for the birds.
There were plenty of long-tailed tits, great tits, blue tits and coal tits tucking in – quite a selection from this particular bird family. And it wasn’t long before we spotted other close relatives – plain brown with light underparts, pale cheeks and black caps…
“Marsh tit on the right-hand feeder,” said Rod, binoculars glued to his eyes. “Another on the branch behind. Something coming in, ah, there, willow tit on the yellow feeder…. Got it?”
“Where, yes, um, I think so,” I said, desperately trying to keep up.
Blimey, you have to be quick and have a keen eye to know what you’re looking at! Nothing’s easy with these two birds and they don’t hang around, darting to the feeder, grabbing a seed and disappearing back between the trees.
Given there are both marsh tits and willow tits living at this site, you have to focus on the tiny differences in appearance to be able to say you have seen the latter. I have certainly made mistakes in the past – proudly showing off photos of a rare ‘willow tit’ on my garden bird table, only to be rightly informed I was mistaken and that it was a marsh tit, which is also the more regular garden visitor.
Rod has to rely solely on sight to tell them apart as his time in the past with RAF rifle teams, when ear defenders weren’t worn, means he can’t hear in certain tonal ranges and misses their distinctive calls. He also told me he is colour blind so concentrates on the birds’ shape and markings.
So what are the differences? Firstly, the willow tit generally has pale edges to its secondary wing feathers – that is those inner feathers tucked close to the body when the wings are folded. Its cap extends further down the back of its neck and is a duller matt black than the glossy cap of the marsh tit, though how visible this is depends on light conditions. Its bib is a little untidier than on the neat marsh tit, and the outer tail feathers a little shorter, and its buff flanks a little more coloured. In addition the white cheeks appear cleaner white, extending further back as it has a rather thick ‘bull’ neck, and its bill is unmarked, while the marsh tit has a white spot near the base – generally something one can only see by checking photographs.
That sounds like a lot of differences, but they are subtle – and hard to spy when the birds are flitting to and from feeders.
Given how cold the winter weather felt, one imagines the seed mix was a real lifesaver, and the willow tits kept returning time and again, presumably stashing a few seeds in case supplies ran dry.
We visited the other feeding stations, including one beside a bird hide, and saw them at all but one site, as well as other birds as we wandered, including a treecreeper, several goosander on the lake and a kingfisher.
Rod said people come from all over the South West to try to see the willow tits at the Tamar Lakes, and we bumped into an American birdwatcher who was delighted to have just added the bird to his ‘life list’ of well over 1,000 species.
“Willow tits are a special species,” said Rod, “and it is great to think we have a really endangered bird doing quite well here, so it is a case of trying to maintain numbers and hope they increase and have spread from this area to other neighbouring woodlands.”
After we said our goodbyes I spent a little time alone by one of the feeders watching the birds come and go, trying to get my eye in. Then I heard the wonderful and unmistakable sound of a willow tit calling and it landed on the feeder for long enough to get a decent look.
Wings – check, neck – check, cheeks – check, cap – check. Like a code-breaker, I was able to crack the combination that unlocks visual identification, to momentarily solve the ornithological puzzle first unravelled a century ago and which continues to perplex birdwatchers to this day.
There before me, grabbing a sunflower seed, was the secretive and increasingly rare willow tit, a species living on the brink of extinction in the UK. Here’s hoping that somehow we can help it turn a corner and enjoy a brighter future.