Epic mystery of Lancashire’s willow tits

Wednesday 11th April 2018

Willow tit by Peter Smith NW Wild Images (1)Willow tit by Peter Smith NW Wild Images (1)

The discovery of Britain’s most endangered small bird on two nature reserves in Preston has delighted conservationists.

After a decline of more than 90 per cent in 15 years the willow tit has been described as Lancashire’s Siberian tiger.

However, Wigan and South Lancashire is where hopes of a revival of this remarkable tiny bird are the highest.

In recent years, willow tits have appeared in woodland at Brockholes and at the nearby Fishwick Bottoms Local Nature Reserve near the Ribble at Preston.

Wildlife Trust Project Officer Chris Taylor said: “We know the Wigan Flashes area is a stronghold for willow tits, but Wigan to Preston would represent a journey of epic proportions to a willow tit. They stick to their territory, travelling just a couple of miles in their lifetime.”

The willow tit is black, pale brown and white tit with a pale panel on the wings and a dull black cap. It has a distinctive nasal zee, zee, zee call which is often the most reliable way to identify the bird.

Wigan Projects Manager Mark Champion believed that there must be populations between Wigan and Preston after finding historic records and from more recent anecdotes from local birders. But there was little real evidence to prove that these secretive birds lived in areas like Chorley and Coppull.

The Wildlife Trust, supported by a grant from the Lancashire Environmental Fund, recruited a team of volunteers to survey likely sites.

Chris said: “In our first year we found willow tits, in Yarrow Valley Park, Cuerden Valley Park, Great Knowley and a number of other sites. Plotted on a map they formed that chain between Wigan and Preston we had been hoping for.

“The willow tits in Preston, the ones that had started the whole process, had vanished, nothing at Brockholes, Fishwick or Preston Junction, which had had a breeding record in 2012.

“We spent the following winter, installing nesting logs and planting small willow patches in all of the areas with positive results, with a small team of brilliant volunteers, who planted a lot of willow and cut back a lot of brambles that winter.”

During the next survey season, they found willow tits in all the same spots and a couple of new ones, but still nothing in Preston. By the time the project finishes this month, they will have planted over 1,000 trees.

Willow tit by Peter SmithThen there was some excitement. Chris said: “There are twists to the story. Last April, a member of Fylde Bird Club, who lives near Savick in Preston, had a willow tit visit his garden. Over the next few days the bird was seen several times in the nearby Savick Park. This area is near the old Cottam brickworks, before the site was cleared for development several years ago it was a known breeding site, but this latest sighting suggests the birds found a new spot in the area.

“The second twist came in late January when a willow tit was seen again at Brockholes after a nearly four-year absence. One willow tit appearing a site could have been freak occurrence, but two in three years suggests again they are breeding somewhere nearby and we had missed them.”

Savick and Brockholes are at opposite sides of Preston, the Savick bird and Brockholes bird, have not come from the same place, they are just too far apart. This means the team has two missing willow tit sites in Preston.

This whole project has been like a mystery unfolding as birds are spotted. Chris is keen on members of the public helping to find the missing links between out willow tit areas.

You can volunteer to help on the Willow Tit Project or donate to the Willow Tit Appeal, which helps us continue its work to create habitats for this beautiful bird.