Sunday, 5 April 2015

Marsh and Willow Tits in northern Surrey

This morning's visit to Juniper Top/Bottom revealed a minimum of four Marsh Tits, two of which were in full song. Whenever I come across this species I cannot help but think back to my formative birding years and the presence in north Surrey of their close relative, the Willow Tit.

It was not difficult to find Willow Tits back in the mid 1970s. I used to go to Epsom Common and be guaranteed of coming across several birds, mostly between Stamford Green and the smaller Stew Pond (the larger pond had not been flooded back then). If you continued onto Ashtead Common you would also find them. The Surrey Bird Reports of the time mention birds being recorded from 20+ sites and reveal that a study in the Oxshott area produced 24 breeding pairs in 1978. I was also able to find them during the summer months on Walton Heath and Headley Heath. Because the local population was relatively healthy, wandering birds could be found from time to time, with my recording of singles at Beddington SF on 12 September 1978 and 17 June 1979 (this bird being trapped), plus one at Nonsuch Park on 25 September 1983. Little did I know that my sightings on Epsom Common in 1989 were to be my last in Surrey - at least it seems likely that this will be the case, unless there remains an undetected bird somewhere off the beaten track.

So, the Willow Tit is consigned to a Surrey birding memory, along with the likes of Grey Partridges, Turtle Doves, Tree Sparrows, Corn Buntings and Cirl Buntings - all species that I could go out and see in the county without too much effort in my teenage years. It's enough to make we weep...

Marsh Tits are still doing well. On the North Downs, between Gatton and Ranmore, they are easy to find. I can get double-figure counts in the Juniper Top/Bottom area. There are outposts further north, but these are showing signs of losing their birds. Banstead Woods used to be a regular haunt but it has recently proved hard to find them there. This year I have found them increasingly difficult to record on Walton Heath, although with a little effort one has given itself up - but just the one! The long term prospect for this species at these sites is not good, particularly from Banstead. But this morning, surrounded by their song and calls, it was easy to assume that, unlike the Willow Tit, the Marsh Tit is here to stay. I do hope so.

11 comments:

  1. Fabulous birds. Saw a few at Juniper Bottom when out earlier in the year looking for Hawfinch, and also one on Headley Heath about a month ago

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    1. We are lucky in still having these birds close at hand Neil. Further north than the downs it is a little bit more difficult to find them though.

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  2. Tree Sparrows, Yellowhammers, Grey Partridges, all disappeared here on Sheppey about 25 years ago and it's hard to know why, there has always been plenty of good habitat for them and in some places its better than it was. Turtle Doves are also becoming a rarity though in their case I think it's more due to the shooting of them on migration.
    Last year a neighbouring shooting farmer put out 400 Grey Parts. and briefly their calls were heard again but I suspect most were shot.

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    1. Derek, it is all very sad. Our farmland birds in particular have had to put up with an onslaught from farming methods, be that the grubbing up of hedgerows or the use of pesticides. Add to that the migrants having to run the gauntlet of guns...

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  3. Marsh Tits remain in various parts of The Canterbury Ring Woods and, at this time of year are fairly easy to find if you know your bird calls. My last Willow Tit, in Kent, was in Trenley Park Wood - June 1997 - when I discovered a pair along the wet valley. There remained a remnant population in a wood just off Stone Street, which is where the vast majority of Kent Year Listers used to get their annual fix - sadly now just a memory.
    In Hertfordshire, as a child/teenager, Willow Tits were widespread all around the woodlands of Hemel Hempstead. Roughdown Common, at Boxmoor was a fantastic place to see these birds, they excavating their nest holes in the rotting stumps of Elder bushes. Again, as mirrored by the populations of most southern counties, they are but now a memory of us old-uns!
    The cause of this decline will be very subjective, but bet your bottom dollar that it is a man-made problem, or combination?
    The fact that woodlands are now tidied, thus the removal of rotting stumps and the like, is very likely to have some impact on the nest site availability of these dainty little birds, although climate change, thus a northward shift in distribution, would be my starting point should I ever wish to get into a research project?
    Hoping you are well - Dyl

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    1. The demise of the Willow Tit in the southern half of England is a complicated subject Dyl. There are various theories that I am not clued-up enough about to comment on there probability, but I do know that they can still be found just over the Channel in France. Maybe its a 'local' issue?

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    2. Steve, if I was a cynical git (perish the thought?) then perhaps the Willow Tits which inhabit the French mainland are a different species to those which used to live in southern Britain? Thank Martin Garner for this train of thought, I'm a free spirit, always learning! Habitat availability is fundamental to all these conundrums. You can split hairs (DNA) for as long as listing remains an issue - bottom line is certain species require specific habit - if it doesn't exist, for whatever reason, neither do they! - Dyl

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  4. As you say the Willow/Marsh Tit decline is a complicated saga, and I could regale a similar tale from Beds/Herts at the back end of the last century (but won`t otherwise the Bard of Littlestone will give me stick!), along with two other woodland residents that have befallen a similar fate: Hawfinch and Lesser pecker. In northern France, where the woods are virtually devoid of corvids and grey squirrels are absent (opportunistic predator of nestlings) we regularly see all four species, but maybe they`re in decline there too, so its not that straight forward. There was a paper in BB a few years ago, but as I recall even that did not come up with a definitive conclusion. As Dylan suggested, I`ll bet the steely hand of mankind has something to do with it.

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    1. The Bard has got both Marsh and Willow Tit on his Dungeness list!!

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  5. Heres a spanner in the works. My last Marsh Tit here was in 2010. My patch was a major stronghold for them in the 80s and 90s but now they are a scarce bird away from the river valleys of south Northumberland. Willow Tits, though, whilst still scarce, can be found in strange random spots along the coast. I get odd birds along coast scrub in August time with post breeding dispersal I assume. This year I have two pairs about 2 miles from me at Craster...Bottom line, both species are really struggling and will soon be on that long list of reminiscences...

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    1. Stewart, I was reading the BTO Atlas earlier today that was suggesting that the drying out of woodland had something to do with the demise of the Willow Tit. Not so sure myself, but whatever the reason(s) I do miss them.

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