Saturday, 27 December 2014

More on willow tits

My Christmas Eve sighting of a willow tit at Grimsbury Woodland nature reserve has inspired me to do a bit more research on their current and recent status in our area, and their conservation priority nationally.  
willow tit, Grimsbury Woodland NR, 24th Dec. 2014
First of all, this species' national population has declined steeply since the mid 1970s.  BTO Breeding Bird Survey data show a 83% decline in population between 1995 and 2012  The latest BTO Atlas shows a big contraction in range too, with the British population becoming increasingly restricted to the Midlands and immediately adjoining areas.  In England it has pretty much gone from the south and is disappearing from east and west.  

There are thought to be around 3400 pairs of willow tits in the UK.  They have now become so scarce that the Rare Breeding Birds Panel collates records alongside long-standing rare breeders like black-necked grebes, hawfinches and hobbies.  It is quite possible there are now fewer pairs of willow tits breeding in the BOS area than hobbies.

In our area, the decline has also be marked with wisespread disappearance from the southern half of the BOS recording area.  From the 1960s to 1990s the willow tit was described as fairly numerous and very widespread.  By the time "Birds of the Heart of England" was published in 2013, the willow tit's status had changed to scarce resident and notes that a few strongholds left north of Banbury. These include the wet scrubby woodlands around the canal feeder reservoirs at Wormleighton and Boddington, as well as the water supply reservoir at Grimsbury.  It does feel that our area is currently in the "battle zone" for this bird, as it disappears from southern counties, but holds its ground in the Midlands.

Personally, I have recorded them occasionally from farmland hedgerows and copses in the Wardington and Cropredy area over the past twelve years, including a single bird visiting our garden feeders for a few days in the early noughties.  I've also seen them on my Breeding Bird Survey site near Moreton Pinkney a couple of times in the past decade.  But they certainly seem to be harder to find now than in the recent past. 

In contrast, the very closely related marsh tit is still fairly numerous and likely to be encountered in any decent path of more mature woodland in our area.  Both species are currently being recorded at Glyn Davies Wood BOS nature reserve, though marsh are certainly more common there than willow.

If you need a refresher on how to separate the two species have a look here or for even more detail here.  The call of the willow tit is a very good field ID feature when heard well. 
Marsh Tit, near Upper Wardington, Dec 2010
What might help us hang on to our willow tits?  There has been quite a lot of research into the causes of decline, and a clear indication that continued provision of young, scrubby, wet woodland is what they really need.  Deer grazing and lack of management can tip the balance and make a woodland less suitable habitat for them.  They don't need big patches of woodland - overgrown hedgerows linking wet woodlands would be ideal.  Some of our disused railway lines have been good for them in the past and could be a focus for future management for this species.

From this, my conclusion is that willow tit has to be in the top five birds of conservation priority in Banburyshire.  And there is certainly a case for the top spot.  It is also a bird that the BOS and others such as the Canal and Rivers Trust, Thames Water and many landowners can do much to help.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Grimsbury Woodland: willow tit & chiffchaff amongst big flock of passerines

Happy Christmas to all my heartofenglandnatureblog readers.  Thanks for your company over the past few months; my blog stats show over 5,000 page views so far; that's really encouraging.  Looking forward to a full year of blogging in 2015!

Christmas Eve has been a lovely sunny day and I managed to catch an hour or so at Grimsbury Reservoir and the adjoining woodland.  The reservoir was fairly quiet for birds - 117 Canada geese were crowded together in a tight flock, four wintering great-crested grebes were still present and a single herring gull was loafing around with a lesser black-backed gull (actually quite a good sighting here!).
Canada geese
Walking just beyond the reservoir and entering the woodland nature reserve, I could hear the chattering of a flock of tits and other small birds.  As I started watching the flock through my binoculars, I was surprised that the first bird to come into view was a chiffchaff.  This warbler is a scarce winter visitor in our area, and it's presence indicated that the likelihood of there being quite a few different birds in this flock. So it proved.

The woodland along the river is dotted with alder trees; their ripening cones attracting a flock of goldfinches.  Below them on the woodland floor, a small flock of chaffinches were feeding amongst the leaves.  Treecreepers, at least three of them, were busy feeding on the tree trunks, using their very delicate bills to probe for hidden insects.
Scot's pine are well established here too, and are very attractive to goldcrests, coal tits and long-tailed tits and it is possible to get really good views of them here, with a bit of patience.
long-tailed tit

The highlight for me was at last (I have tried a few times!) finding a willow tit feeding amongst the flock, working it's way along pine branches, searching for food, constantly active.  Not too easy to photograph so just "record shots" below, but these show some of the features that distinguish them from the very similar marsh tit.  These include the diffuse edge black "bib" (unlike the very neat bib of the marsh).  The diagnostic pale wing panel was also very noticeable at times (but not well captured in the photos here).
willow tit feeding on alder tree

willow tit feeding on Scot's pine

Willow tits are declining rapidly in the UK and have become very localised in our area.  They like patches of damp woodland with willow, birch and alder.  Grimsbury woodland nature reserve is currently one of the few places left in Oxfordshire where you have a chance of seeing them.

I could have stayed watching and photographing this flock of birds for much longer but there was Christmas shopping still to do.....

Thats all for now until after Christmas.  Best wishes,  Mike

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Tadmarton Heath: winter birds and roe deer

Saturday 13 Dec - wonderful, crisp, cold, but sunny day.  Thrushes busy feeding from early on: blackbirds around the village, redwings and fieldfares in the hedgerows.  Low angled raking sunshine across Tadmarton Heath nature reserve, casting a warm glow on the landscape.
Tadmarton Heath
Well stocked bird feeders attract a constant stream of birds, especially blue, great and marsh tits.  A sparrowhawk and kestrel share the same treetop perch, an unusual sight to see these two side by side. The sparrowhawk looks much the smaller, likely an immature male, maybe from this year's nest in the wood.  Soon the sparrowhawk sweeps down from the perch and towards the feeders....

crab apples
The "heath" itself is pretty quiet apart from one or two dunnocks and a song thrush.  A very smart fox surveys their domain from near the top.  The valley below is alive with fieldfares, chaffinches, a few yellowhammers and a slightly shy roe deer.  Crab apples scattered on the ground are well nibbled.

Sunday 14 Dec - with friends at Brandon Marsh today.  This wildlife trust reserve near Coventy has a good variety of wet habitats, with lots of alders and willows, reedbeds, pools and damp grassland.
Brandon Marsh - view from the latest new hide
It also has good cafe looking out over well stocked bird (and squirrel) feeders.  Nothing out of the ordinary today, but good views of a decent sized flock of lesser redpolls, some pink-flushed males
standing out from the crowd.  A bittern has been seen recently but remains elusive.  A flock of lapwings take flight from the main pool and for once the camera autofocus delivers first time!
part of the lapwing flock

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Bicester Wetland Reserve: new swift tower installed

This evening I made another visit to Boddington Reservoir to watch the gull roost.  You need to be there about 3.15 to 4pm at the moment.  There are still large numbers of gulls but almost all black-headed (3000 ish) and common (500), just a few few lesser black-backs, three herring and a single greater-black-backed - the latter is fairly scarce in our area so nice to see. 

This is the newly-installed swift tower at the Bicester Wetland Reserve. 

Details of the project from Chris Mason:

It contains 20 nest boxes and has a solar-operated system for playing swift attraction calls. 
Swift numbers are going down and loss of nest sites is partly responsible. Caring for traditional nest sites is an obvious response, but creating new nest places is important too. Apart from incorporating nest boxes and bricks in new buildings and putting up nest boxes, swift towers have been        successful in a several places. 

This particular model was designed and built in Northern Ireland and at least 30 of them have been put up in different parts of the United Kingdom. As far as I know this is the first in Oxfordshire. We are grateful to the HDH Wills Trust and the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE2) for funding for the project. 

Swifts still breed nearby in Bicester town and regularly feed around the sewage works so we hope that one day the reserve will have a new breeding bird to add to its list; but be patient!