Tuesday, 6 January 2015

helping willow tits

Our Willow Tit (Poecile montana) in trouble. The RSPB tells us that it is our most rapidly declining resident bird.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) tells us: Willow Tits have been in decline since the mid 1970s, and have become locally extinct in an ever-growing number of former haunts. 

decline in Willow Tit population
Never common, its population has fallen to such an extent that all breeding records must now be sent to the Rare Breeding Birds Panel.

Nottinghamshire Birdwatchers Annual Report 2012 only recorded birds in 24 locations. The report goes on to say that if the rate of decline continues Willow Tits may become extinct in the county within ten years.

The reasons for the catastrophic decline are unclear, but the RSPB has identified that 'Woods that have retained breeding Willow tits have damp soils, lower tree canopy cover and higher cover in the mid shrub layer and have more species indicative of scrub and wet woodland e.g. hawthorn, elder, willow and alder'.

But in Wigan, Lancs, they have been able to halt the decline. BBC Countryfile featured the work of Lancashire Wildlife Trust and interviewed Mark Champion, 
LWT  Wigan Projects Manager.

In a nutshell, the success of the Wigan project was attributed to providing the correct habitat. And providing nest sites. 

The Willow Tit is unique amongst our native tits in being the only species that excavates its nest hole from decaying wood. Most other tits make use of existing holes for their nests.

'Hmmm' I thought as I walked in Nottinghamshire's Leen Valley over the Christmas period. 'Surely some of this damp woodland can support Willow Tits?'

So, I contacted Mark Champion. 'What can I do to help local Willow Tits, if any still survive?' Mark replied immediately.

He began by telling me that there are populations of willow tits associated with the Coalfield areas of the county especially those areas adjacent to the Derbyshire and Yorkshire post-industrial areas. 

'Post-industrial' or brownfield sites that have open water can be favoured by Willow Tits.

Mark suggested that I began by surveying the habitat looking for damp scrub woodlands, especially those containing crack and grey willow, this is the habitat used by the willow tit, then survey using a tape lure of willow tits. Play the tape twice and move on - in spring willow tits will answer immediately. 

Our friend Andy had told us before we watched the Countryfile programme of the technique of securing rotting birch logs vertically to trees and drilling a 25mm starter hole for birds to excavate. Mark expanded on this technique by suggesting use of 4ft log zip tied to the existing trees at a density of 1 per 100m2.

Mark told me that damp willow woodland adjacent to shallow standing water, with a complex understory is required as the birds feed low down and are specialists in this habitat, He said that bramble and hazel within the willow scrub seem to perform the role of producing adequate complexity.


In Marks report 'Willow Tit Woodland Creation Habitat project' he says: 'In Britain, the Willow Tit is resident and highly sedentary; of 114 ringing recoveries 89 were within 5km of the original ringing site and only 4 were from distances greater than 20km'. 
If we are lucky enough to find Willow Tits, they are likely to be birds resident in that area. In which case, we may be able to support their breeding...

So, here's the plan:
  1. On Monday, eight of us intend to meet up at our place and look at the local OS map for possible areas along the Leen valley, initially between the Mill Ponds and Papplewick.
  2. I hope that we can arm ourselves with 'tape lures' of Willow Tit calls. This will be tough as the calls must be heard 70m from the tape player.
  3. We will then survey our chosen sites.
  4. And then meet up for lunch to see whether we've located any local populations and/or found suitable habitat.
  5. And plan from there.
We may fall flat on our faces. But it will prove interesting trying - and may help our endangered Willow Tits.

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