Willow Tit – Lower Tamar Lakes, Devon

Despite my Willow Tit sighting yesterday I’d always planned to visit Lower Tamar Lakes as this presented the most reliable way to see Willow Tit as they visit feeders here and so getting some sketching opportunities was much more likely. My information was that the feeders were to the left of the dam and on google maps I could see the dam and I could see that the car park was fairly close by.

We arrived in the car park and I headed to the dam and was disappointed to see that there was no feeding station. I decided to google ‘Willow Tit Lower Tamar Lakes feeding stations’ and found an article on the Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society (even though the lakes are a mile into Devon). The article was written by Rod Mudge who organises and tops up the feeders. There were actually three feeding stations and with my spirits raised I headed to the one that was nearest to where I was at the dam.

I couldn’t find the feeders and this may have been because the area was very wet and only accessible in wellies and I either hadn’t walked far enough or the feeders had been moved. I decided to head to the second feeders on the other side of the dam and found them very quickly but unfortunately they were virtually empty of seed. Rather than waste time here I thought I would head to the last feeders which were nearer to the car park. Unfortunately they were also empty of seed. The article said that the feeders were topped up every three days and more often if large parties of birders were visiting.

I decided to set up at this final feeding station which comprised three feeders hanging from a Hazel tree. There was some bird activity although I’m not how much seed the birds were getting. Over the next 15 minutes a Willow Tit visited on a couple of occasions with the pale panel on the secondaries being really obvious. The feeders were dominated by a handful of Chaffinches and the Willow Tit appeared hesitant even in the company of the slightly smaller Blue Tits. Although the feeders looked empty the birds did seem to be getting something from them.

The Willow Tit certainly look large headed, this effect is enhanced by the fact that the ear covets are white all the way to the narrow black nape as opposed to Marsh Tit where the ear coverts are dusky towards a wider black nape making the head look smaller. The flanks were a buff brown, warmer than Marsh Tit and the head was a dull mat black. The bib also looked larger and messier. Several of these features are difficult to judge accurately but the pale wing panel and the different call are probably the best features, although this bird didn’t call.

I then decided to head back to the previous feeding station to see if there was more activity here and there did seem to be although it was mainly Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits. I waited hoping for another Willow Tit but no luck. I wandered away slightly and then heard the call I was waiting for. It was two high pitched ‘si’ notes followed by a slow drawn out harsh ‘erz erz erz’ quite different to the sneezing ‘pitchoo’ of the Marsh Tit. I quickly found the Willow Tit and watched him as he drifted back towards the feeders.

The British population of Willow Tit has declined by 94% since 1970 making it the most threatened resident bird in Britain. Its recent population declines make it a Red List species. It is believed that the decline is due to increased competition typically from Blue Tits and Great Tits taking over their nest sites, increased predation of nests with Great Spotted Woodpeckers being the prime culprit and also (as always) habitat change. Willow Tits largely inhabit areas of damp, scrubby woodland.  As soon as these successional type habitats are allowed to develop into mature woodland they become more attractive to Blue Tits and Great Spotted Woodpeckers thus increasing competition and predation.        

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