Marsh Tit or Willow?

I received a ‘tweet’ the other day from a fellow ‘twitterer’ @katesparkle saying
I am pretty sure I had a marsh tit in the garden yesterday. Is that unusual?
The recent cold weather has understandably driven many birds to our gardens in search of food. On the net and in the media I have seen reports of Redwings, Fieldfares and even Woodcocks being sited in gardens, so for Kate to have had a visit from a Marsh Tit is perhaps not surprising. It is also true to say that Marsh Tits seem to be a bird on the rise. My personal experience was to never have seen one until a few years ago when one visited our winter feeders. The one sighting became regular and we now have at least two who commonly visit, both with a particular penchant for sunflower seed hearts. This was exciting for us and real evidence of what regular bird feeding can achieve.
Following the first sightings there was of course a period of scouring the bird identification books to confirm what it was, which leads us neatly back to my reply to Kate, namely
Excellent! We’ve a couple who’ve come in last 3yrs. Tricky bit is deciding if it’s Marsh or Willow -we’re still not 100% sure!
So, how can you be sure whether the little buff visitor with a black crown is a Marsh or Willow Tit? First, the documented descriptions. The RSPB website says;

Marsh tit – Red Listed
Latin name
Poecile palustris
Family
Tits (Paridae)
Overview
Not distinguished from the willow tit as a separate species until 1897, the marsh tit is smart, clean looking bird with a small, well defined black bib and glossy black cap. As with so many woodland birds, its call is the best way of locating it. It feeds acrobatically and will hoard food if it finds a good supply. Recent population declines make this a Red List species.
Where to see them
Occurs across England and Wales, with a few in southern Scotland. It is most abundant in S Wales and southern and eastern England. Found largely in deciduous woodland, also copses, parks and gardens, but it is quite scarce in urban areas. When feeding it ranges from between the upper canopy to lower undergrowth.
When to see them
All year round.
What they eat
Insects and seeds
Estimated numbers
UK breeding*- 52,800 territories
* UK breeding is the number of pairs breeding annually. UK wintering is the number of individuals present from October to March. UK passage is the number of individuals passing through on migration in spring and/or autumn.

Willow tit – Red Listed
Latin name
Poecile montanus
Family
Tits (Paridae)
Overview
Between blue and great tits in size, with no yellow, green or blue. It has a large sooty-black cap extending to the back of the neck and a small untidy black bib. It is mid-brown above, with whiter cheeks and pale buff-grey underparts. Its wings show a pale panel not found in marsh tits. Its recent population declines make it a Red List species.
Where to see them
Found mainly in England and Wales, with some in S Scotland. Willow tits are often, but by no means exclusively, found in willow thickets in damp places, such as the edge of lowland peat bogs, marshes, and around gravel pits.
When to see them
All year round
What they eat
Insects, seeds and berries.
Estimated numbers
UK breeding* – 8,500 territories
* UK breeding is the number of pairs breeding annually. UK wintering is the number of individuals present from October to March. UK passage is the number of individuals passing through on migration in spring and/or autumn.

My other sources, notably ‘The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe‘ added further identifying features, giving me the following GISS list;
Marsh tit – Glossy crown with uniformly coloured wings – no light panel. Sedentary or occasionally seen in pairs
Willow tit – Matt black crown and white cheeks with light wing panel. Joins winter roving tit flocks.

So, what species is my visitor? Over the weekend I managed to get some pictures from our garden and remain of the opinion that our bird is a Marsh tit, however I guess until I have photographs of both species to compare I will not be 100% sure!


One Comment

  1. Hi

    This is a marsh tit, based on the second image, where a pale patch can be seen on the cutting edge of the proximal end of the upper mandible (apologies for long-windedness!). Willow tits have a uniformly dark bill, and this is the only reliable visual cue to tell the species apart. Not a great field character, but good with decent photos or in the hand.

    Nice blog BTW!

    All the best

    Mark

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