Country diary: when the hills come alive to the sound of willow tits

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The late country diarist Bill Condry wrote of what’s often referred to by ornithologists as “the confusion pair”, that “it would be the greatest help … if these two remarkably similar birds, the marsh and willow tits, occupied entirely separate parts of the country. Instead, their ranges are so mixed up you can expect to find either in many parts of Wales”.

Actually, the Linnaean names give a clue to likely habitats: marsh tit is Poecile palustris, while willow tit is Poecile montanus. They are indeed difficult to distinguish from each other visually, voice being a better guide than appearance (the willow tit’s being less percussive, more varied and musical). If you’re lucky enough to be visited by a flock, note their more dapper appearance, the overall grey sheen of the plumage beautifully contrasted with matt-black caps. Behaviour, too, is distinctive. Two small birds vigorously excavating a nest-hole in rotten willow? Willow tits, for sure (though marsh tits may take it over in following seasons).

My favourite places for seeing them, in little hectic, tuneful gangs of half a dozen or so, darting around clinging to willow-poles, are in the carrs below Bury Ditches in Shropshire’s hill-country. They were there last week, and so was I, on a clear spring afternoon when the surrounding summits seemed close enough almost to touch. The hill was a marvellous viewpoint. Mysterious tracks led into the undergrowth, their mud imprinted with recent roe-deer slots. Crossbills chipped away from the topmost points of spruce. I had my spyglass to hand, lest the local goshawks put in a quietening appearance.

Suddenly, willow-poles to the right of the track were alive with a tuneful little, hyperactive gang of willow tits, gyrating around poles still quite bare after the cold spring. Their plumage was so elegant, their interactions so voluble. My frequent sightings of this exquisite little bird and poignant songster (think wood warbler’s elegiac tones) around Clun tally with Condry’s observation that “upstream from Newbridge on Wye you are more likely to see willow tits than marsh tits”. To see a vibrant flock of them flitting around leafy willow carrs in the fullness of spring is joy indeed.

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