The Marsh Tit Locally and Regionally

Marsh Tit (c) RSPB
John Tymon's encounter with a Marsh Tit at Pennington Flash last week has prompted me to try to clarify the status of a species which has had a confusing history in several respects. To begin, it is clearly mis-named, since it has no affinity whatsoever with marshland, and its similarity to our more familiar Willow Tit has caused a degree of uncertainty about earlier records.

It wasn't even regarded as a separate species until the very end of the 19th century, by which time F.S.Mitchell's “The Birds of Lancashire” (1892) had been published and the accounts of both species had been placed together under the heading 'Marsh Tit'; many of these records would have been of Willow Tits and it wasn't until Clifford Oakes's “The Birds of Lancashire” appeared in 1953 that we have our first comprehensive accounts of the status of the two species. In this scholarly masterpiece, which I recommend to anybody with an interest in our regional ornithology, Mr. Oakes presents a description which includes its breeding range and names Silverdale as the place where the breeding population is most concentrated.

Willow Tit (c) RSPB
In his first paragraph, he produces a sentence which reflects our present-day understanding of its mobility outside the breeding season - “It is less inclined to wander during the winter (than the Coal Tit); indeed, its attachment to traditional nesting haunts may be one of the reasons for its failure to colonise otherwise suitable habitats.”

This disposition towards a sedentary existence is supported by an up-to-date reference on Wikipedia which states that UK ringing data indicates that 85% of over a hundred recoveries of ringed birds have been less than three miles from where they were ringed and only 1% more than twelve miles away. 

Clearly, the intriguing question must now be - “Has the bird that John saw last week come from some unknown local site, and, if so, where might that be?” I'll return to this question later : in the meantime, I leave you all with a beautifully enticing extract from Clifford Oakes - “There are few more pleasant sights than a party of 20-30 Marsh Tits, in fresh autumn plumage, feeding in birch or willow scrub at the forest edge on a sunny October day.” Interestingly, Mr. Oakes makes no mention of the Leigh area in his description of the Marsh Tit's breeding distribution, the nearest reference being “It is unknown near Bolton ….. “.

Marsh Tit
(c)  Stephen Burch
As regards local breeding in more up-to-date literature, two records probably refer to the same occurrence (somewhere in the Smithills/Doffcocker area) - “A very scarce resident. Only one pair known to have bred since 1980 (J.H.Cooper and J.C.Wood - “A Check List of the Birds of Bolton” c.1985”) “ and “The confirmed record near Bolton was unexpected” in “Breeding Birds in Greater Manchester (P.Holland, I.Spence and T.Sutton – MOS, 1984).”

Intriguingly, there are mixed messages from a well-watched site in the south of our recording area. In his 1981 publication “Birdwatching at Risley Moss”, Peter Barlow, a meticulous recorder of all he saw, did not include Marsh Tit in his list of species seen over several years, and yet there have been sightings on ten subsequent occasions (until 2013). Elsewhere, the situation a little later was concisely expressed in the Society's Report for 1990 by Chris Darbyshire - “One was identified near Pengy's hide at Pennington on 7th April. There were only seven accepted records of this South Lancashire rarity in our area during the 1980s, all in 1982-83: many claims were rejected due to lack of confirmatory detail and thus possible confusion with Willow Tit.”

Willow Tit at Pennington Flash
(c) Martyn Jones
In more recent years there have been a scattering of records more numerous to list here, but the earlier point about the Marsh Tit's sedentary nature brings me back to the point of local breeding. My available literature is somewhat contradictory, apart from the fact that mature woodland is an essential requirement, and I am inclined to request the help of highly-skilled naturalists, among them Pauline Greenhalgh and others who might be familiar with the Silverdale area or other strongholds, to perhaps give a brief habitat description to see if it fits any of our local sites, Borsdane or Atherton Woods, for example. 

The expert naturalist in our midst has, by way of experience and commitment, the ability to bring together birds and typical habitats in comments such as “This is a likely place for Lesser Whitethroat” or “Just let's see if there's a Jack Snipe here.” Perhaps a good habitat description might encourage some birdwatchers to visit unexplored corners and make an important discovery which might well lead to a site acquiring protective status on behalf of a Red List species such as Marsh Tit.

It might seem to be wishful thinking to connect John's sighting to a search of possible breeding habitats - to an important discovery - to the granting of protective status at a time when there are enormous pressures on all forms of wildlife. If such a sequence of events came to pass, it would be an invaluable and positive contribution towards local conservation at a time when much of the news about our environment is depressingly negative, and it would fulfil the two fundamental aims of our Society:-
  1. to further the study of birds in the field
  2. to assist in their preservation. 
Happy searching and good luck.
Dave Wilson