Apr 29 2021

Bird of the Month – Marsh Tit

In the ninth instalment of our “Bird of the Month” blog we go looking for one of Fingle’s less common species… but not where its name might suggest!

By early April, although hard frosts still cover the valley floor on cold nights, there are signs of spring to be found in many places. Celandines and Wood Anemones are flowering in sheltered corners, and the first Oil Beetles will be laying their eggs in Ross Meadow.

An April dawn in Fingle Woods

At the same time, although it has a way to go before reaching its peak in May, the dawn chorus will be starting to build up as resident species stake out their territories. These early weeks of Spring are actually the best time to appreciate some of our resident species’ contributions to the dawn chorus, as they will soon be quieting down to concentrate on nest building and raising young. Among these early singers are Fingle’s four resident species of tit – Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit and Marsh Tit. This month we’re going to take a look at the most elusive of these – the Marsh Tit.

The first thing to know about the Marsh Tit is that its name is quite misleading! It has no real association with wetlands, being primarily a bird of mixed broadleaf woodland, although it can also be found in parks and gardens. The rather confusing name may arise from the fact that there is another very similar species, the Willow Tit, which is usually found in wet woodland. The Willow Tit was only recognised as a separate European species in 1827, and it wasn’t until 1897 that ornithologists realised that both species were present in Britain. Both Marsh and Willow Tit are more closely related to the north American “Chickadees” than they are to the other UK tits.

In spite of their name, mature broadleaf woodland, sometimes close to running water, is a Marsh Tit’s preferred habitat.

Separating the two species in the field can be a challenge, especially if the bird isn’t calling or singing. There are subtle variations in body shape and plumage colour, but the most reliable way of differentiating the two is a pale spot at the base of the lower part of the bill which is present in Marsh Tit, but not in Willow Tit. The most commonly heard Marsh Tit call is an explosive “pitchoo”, often followed by a “dee-dee-dee” – the latter call being the one that gives the Chickadee family its name.

Marsh Tit, showing the pale spot at the base of the upper mandible which distinguishes it from the rarer Willow Tit

Sadly (although it does simplify identification somewhat!) Willow Tit hasn’t been recorded at Fingle Woods since 2016 – a symptom of a nationwide decline likely driven by a loss of suitable breeding habitat and landscape connectivity. Targeted surveys were carried out at Fingle in 2019 and 2020 to see if the species might still be present but no birds were found. Thankfully Marsh Tit are doing much better at Fingle – although the national population is showing a worrying decline, local numbers are stable or slightly increasing.

Marsh Tits are hole nesters, usually in a tree but sometimes in a man-made structure such as a stone wall. Rather than excavating their own hole they will usually select a natural cavity or a disused nest of another species. They will also use nestboxes – in fact they have occasionally been found in the dormouse boxes located at various points around Fingle. As previously mentioned, they are early breeders, with eggs being laid by mid-April and fledging before the end of May. In spite of this it’s rare for them to attempt a second brood, which usually only happens if the first nest fails for some reason

A Marsh Tit sitting on a nest constructed in a dormouse box (photo credit: Matt Parkins)

Once nesting begins they become very elusive – almost never singing and only calling occasionally. Most of the breeding records at Fingle are from sightings post-fledging, when family groups become quite conspicuous, calling to each other as they move through the trees in search of food.

Listen to Marsh Tit song at Xeno Canto

Marsh Tits are fairly well distributed throughout the broadleaf woodland at Fingle, although in quite low numbers. They are easiest to spot in the winter months, when they often join large roving flocks of other tit species as they move through the canopy in search of food. They also love to visit bird feeders, and so can often be seen around the boundaries of the site in inhabited areas.

The “Marsh Tit Plot” – a part of Fingle Woods which is being managed to enhance the habitat for the species.

An area of Fingle Woods to the west of Wooston Hillfort is being managed for Marsh Tit as part of an ongoing trial of the Woodland Wildlife Toolkit, a package of practical guidance for land owners and managers developed by a partnership of UK conservation organisations. Conifer stands around the edge of the plot have been pushed back to allow surviving mature broadleaf trees to thrive, and regenerating conifers have been removed from open areas to promote the development of a healthy broadleaf shrub layer. Encouragingly, Marsh Tit was recorded in this area for the first time in the spring of 2019!

If you would like to read the full 2020 Breeding Bird Survey report for Fingle Woods please click here.

Text and pictures by Tom Williams unless otherwise credited.

https://finglewoods.org.uk/

No Comments

Post a Comment
X