Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

Willow Tit Radio Tracking Tales Part 1

Willow Tit Radio Tracking Tales - Part 1

On a cold February day in 2019 (which seems like a lifetime ago), a pair of the UK’s most threatened resident bird, the Willow Tit, went about their daily lives, foraging for food in their usual territory at Pool Ings near Royston, Barnsley.

Pool Ings is a semi-natural mixed plantation woodland on the fringes of urban Barnsley, a former mining town in South Yorkshire. To the north is Rabbit Ings Country Park, where old spoil heaps have developed into flower-rich grasslands and heath, a stark contrast to the industrial scrap yards and disused railways lined with maturing scrub to the south of the site.

Project Assistant Anthony had caught this first Willow Tit pair at this site (to be known as Red-White, the female, and Red-Grey, the male, due to the colour combinations of the rings fitted to their legs). Both a healthy weight, they were then fitted with radio tags so Anthony could track their movements over the next few days to understand how they used the habitat. Or so he thought… the pesky Red-Grey managed to remove its radio tag within ten minutes. Sometimes birds just don’t want to play science.

Red-White however, obliged by keeping the tag on and Anthony was able to track her for three days. Following a period of up to ten days, the tags are designed to fall off by themselves so as not to interfere with the birds’ breeding activity.


The elusive male, Red-Grey

Red-White was an incredibly secretive bird, and was hardly seen or heard during tracking. She spent almost all her time hidden away in dense scrub, often simply moving from one spot to the next likely foraging for insects in the undergrowth.

For the most part, the pair remained in a small area within the woodland. Occasionally they ventured further away from this core area for short periods of time. The core area of activity could be the main breeding site, where nest building takes place and the birds prepare for breeding. The surrounding area of the territory is used to forage for food or materials to line the nest. In all, this pair’s home range (the extent of habitat used) measured 7 hectares.


Radio tracking data for Red-White over three days, February 2019

Interestingly, the pair of Willow Tits would occasionally visit the adjacent gardens, several times a day. They were mostly visiting the feeders but would also skulk around in the hedges and bushes. With the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch taking place Friday 29th – Sunday 31st January, it’s always worth looking out for a sneaky Willow Tit visiting your garden feeders. Their secretive nature and tendency to be bullied by more common garden birds means visits may only be fleeting, but it you do get a Willow Tit in your garden, it’s possible they have a breeding territory nearby if they are part of a pair. Any record is really important given their dramatic decline in the UK, so if you’re confident you have a record, send it to your local recording centre or check out the National Willow Tit Survey

 

Sophie Pinder

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Back from the Brink Willow Tit

Project Officer

 

 Would you like to help these incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:

  • Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
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