Marsh Tit in the Wood

May, the month when the dawn chorus will be starting to build up as resident species stake out their territories. These early weeks of Spring are actually the best time to appreciate some of our resident species contributions to the dawn chorus, as they will soon be quieting down to concentrate on nest building and raising young. Among these early singers are our four resident species of tit – Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit and Marsh Tit. This month we’re going to take a look at the most elusive of these – the Marsh Tit.

The first thing to know about the Marsh Tit is that its name is quite misleading! It has no real association with wetlands, being primarily a bird of mixed broadleaf woodland, although it can also be found in parks and gardens. The rather confusing name may arise from the fact that there is another very similar species, the Willow Tit, which is usually found in wet woodland. The Willow Tit was only recognised as a separate European species in 1827, and it wasn’t until 1897 that ornithologists realised that both species were present in Britain. Both Marsh and Willow Tit are more closely related to the north American “Chickadees” than they are to the other UK tits.

In spite of their name, mature broadleaf woodland, often close to running water, is a Marsh Tit’s preferred habitat

Separating the two species in the field can be a challenge, especially if the bird isn’t calling or singing. There are subtle variations in body shape and plumage colour, but the most reliable way of differentiating the two is a pale spot at the base of the lower part of the bill which is present in Marsh Tit, but not in Willow Tit. The most commonly heard Marsh Tit call is an explosive “pitchoo”, often followed by a “dee-dee-dee” – the latter call being the one that gives the Chickadee family its name.

Marsh Tit, showing the pale spot at the base of the upper mandible which distinguishes it from the rarer Willow Tit

Sadly, Willow Tit hasn’t been recorded at East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve (NNR) and is subject to nationwide decline, likely driven by a loss of suitable breeding habitat and landscape connectivity.  If you record any certain sitings we would be pleased to have them.

Thankfully Marsh Tit are doing much better at East Dartmoor NNR – although the national population is showing a worrying decline, local numbers are stable or slightly increasing.

Marsh Tits are hole nesters, usually in a tree but sometimes in a man-made structure such as a stone wall. Rather than excavating their own hole they will usually select a natural cavity or a disused nest of another species and they will also use nest boxes. As previously mentioned, they are early breeders, with eggs being laid by mid-April and fledging before the end of May. In spite of this it’s rare for them to attempt a second brood, which usually only happens if the first nest fails for some reason. This year’s nesting season has be delayed by the cold weather we have been experiencing, let’s hope they can catch up as soon as the weather changes.

A Marsh Tit sitting on a nest constructed in a dormouse box (photo credit: Matt Parkins)

Once nesting begins they become very elusive – almost never singing and only calling occasionally. Most of the breeding records are from sightings post-fledging, when family groups become quite conspicuous, calling to each other as they move through the trees in search of food.

Listen to Marsh Tit song at Xeno Canto

Marsh Tits are fairly well distributed throughout the broadleaf woodland, although in quite low numbers. They are easiest to spot in the winter months, when they often join large roving flocks of other tit species as they move through the canopy in search of food. They also love to visit bird feeders, and so can often be seen around the boundaries of the site in inhabited areas.

Text and pictures by Tom Williams (unless otherwise credited), with additional field notes by Albert Knott

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