30B WILLOW TITS AT WOOLSTON EYES NATURE RESERVE - 2010

by Alan Rustell

 

The Willow Tit (Poecile montanus) is a charming bird and part of its allure to the ornithologist may be that it is the only British titmouse, other than the Crested Tit (Parus cristatus), which excavates its nest chamber. It is now becoming extremely scare (Red Listed) and recent estimates put its decline at 70% over the past 20 years (BTO - British Trust for Ornithology).

 

Woolston Eyes Reserve appears to be one of the few places in the country where it is holding its own. However, it can be easily overlooked wherever it is found, often due to its tendency to silence during the breeding season. Many birdwatchers only obtain their sightings from its presence at feeders during the winter. It can easily be confused with the Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris), although in Chesire, this species appears to have a more westerly distribution around Chester and the Wirral.

 

The easiest way to identify the Willow Tit is to become acquainted with its calls. Whilst it can make several tit-like utterances the main note that confirms its presence is the famous 'tchay' call, which to my ear sounds more like "eeze, eeze, eeze". The other is its charming song, a clear "tew, tew, tew" that often recalls part of the song of a Greenfinch. These main calls are diagnostic and easily separate it from its close relative, the Marsh Tit. To listen to the calls and song click the linkhttp://www.garden-birds.co.uk/birds/willowtit.htm

 

In a newsletter preceeding the current Cheshire Atlas, its author made a plea for observers to try to visit tetrads in the breeding season, where they had encountered the bird in winter. In the Atlas itself, he states that few extra records were forthcoming. Given the current concerns, it is worthwhile and valuable for all birdwatchers who locate Willow Tits in the breeding season to submit their records and if possible, to prove breeding. Watching the birds excavating can be a uniquely satisfying experience. Once the entrance has been bored they take the chips from the nest chamber and dispose of them at a short distance. Whilst thay are notoriously quiet in the nesting season. particularly when building and incubating, excavating birds can be noisy and easily tracked. The nest hole is usually in a rotting stump or limb less than 1.5 metres from the ground, though I frequently find nests between two and four metres high. Mid-March to mid-April is the prime time to find the birds excavating and also to hear the spring song.

 

It seems that major conclusions have not yet been reached for the reasons for the birds' drastic decline. In my experience, eviction from nest sites by Great and Blue Tits (Parus major and caeruleus) and the unwelcome attention of Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) are contributary factors. I have watched excavating birds fighting off Great Tits over a two hour period and have also a pair successfully defending their nest chamber against this stronger species. I have also watched a 'Battle Royal' were a 'Willow' grappled claw-to-claw with a Blue Tit at the base of the tree, beneath the nest hole.

 

A large percentage of the nests I find are attacked by the Great Spotted Woodpecker. This does not always occur when the nest is active. Sometimes they drill into the cavities after the young have fledged and I have often returned to a successful nest to find the hole enlarged of the chamber damaged. This year I discovered that a woodpecker will also often drill into a partially excavated cavity or before nest building has actually commenced. Great Spotted Woodpeckers seem to be attracted to Willow Tit borings and possibly the tell-tale wood chippings below. The cavity often has thin walls in a small diameter stump and renders it easy to break into. The Willow Tit also often choose to excavate in stumps that are habitually visited by woodpeckers and I have watched a woodpecker visit whilst excavation was in progress! Whatever the reason for failure, the tits have to start the whole process again and do not benefit fromthe more robust sites in natural holes, as with other titmice.

 

Woolston Eyes Reserve is a 'goldmine' for this species and therefore of national importance. Long may it continue to thrive there. Birdwatchers can help with the national census of this charming little bird by being alert in the breeding season and submitting any records they have. Actual proved breeding records are even more valuable and can contribute to greater understanding and reasons for the Willow Tit's decline.

 

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