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

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Bury Ditches, Clun: To see a vibrant flock of willow tits flitting around leafy willow carrs in the fullness of spring is joy indeed

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).

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