Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

How to spot a Willow Tit

In our last two Willow Tit blogs, we introduced the project itself and then looked at why it’s been chosen for Back from the Brink. In this blog piece, we’re focussing on how you can spot a Willow Tit and what you can do when that happens.

Why is it important to know what one looks like? Well, Willow Tits and Marsh Tits appear extremely similar so it can be quite daunting, even for an experienced birder, to confidently tell the difference. Below are some tips to help you identify Willow Tits - it’s not all about physical appearance, sometimes knowing where to look can be just as important as what to look for.

Somewhere between Great Tit and Blue Tit in size, the Willow Tit is a stocky bird with a black cap and bib, dusty brown top and wing, white cheeks and buff grey underparts. If you are lucky (or patient) enough to see a bird of this description - get your binoculars out! Unlike Marsh Tits, Willow Tits have a pale wing panel, a larger and more undefined bib, a sooty black cap (rather than the glossy cap of a Marsh Tit) and are generally more bulky and “untidy” looking birds.

You may think that Willow Tits and Marsh Tits are likely to be found in the same kind of habitat – damp young woodland. However, despite their name, Marsh Tits actually prefer drier, more mature woodland. Willow Tits are more closely associated with wetter areas, and need wet-dependant species, such as birch, willow and alder for their nest sites.
So, if you are looking in a young wet woodland, and see a bird of the description above, it is more likely to be a Willow Tit.

It is not just the bird you need to look for. Other signs are important to determine whether Willow Tits are living in an area. The biggest giveaway that Willow Tits are using an area are the nest holes. These will be in soft, rotting deadwood, usually standing but can be fallen, and are usually located 1-1.5 metres from the ground. Nesting lower down means there is less competition with other tit species and woodpeckers for higher nest sites. Holes are small, about 2-3 inches in diameter and usually take the shape of a ragged oval.

By far, the best way to distinguish a Willow Tit from a Marsh Tit is by their calls. Think of Marsh Tits and Willow Tits as having a cold. Marsh Tits let out an explosive “pitchout” call, much like a violent sneeze. Willow Tits have a long, drawn-out and nasal-sounding “zee-zurzur-zur” call, which is unmistakably unique to Willow Tits.

Although they mainly feed on insects and berries, Willow Tits will come to garden feeders of nuts and seeds in the winter when food is scarce. If there are populations of willow tits in your area, you can attract them to your garden by keeping the feeders topped up when it gets cold.

If you are keen-eyed enough to get a record of a willow tit, you can follow us and tell us about your sightings on social media. Search for us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @naturebftb. You can get involved further in the project by visiting our website and looking through our upcoming events and volunteer days. You can even donate to help us bring the Willow Tit back from the brink! Go to naturebftb.co.uk.

Thank you,

Sophie Pinder

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