A few years ago I was pleased to record a couple of Willow Tits in Margaret Wood, the CRT’s Yorkshire property most famous for its Bluebells. Willow Tits are one of our of our most rapidly declining resident birds, (-93% over 50 years) and have dropped below the threshold where standard bird surveys are able to keep tabs on the national population: it’s thought that there could be fewer than 3000 pairs in Britain. As a result, a special survey has been designed for Willow Tits, focusing on 2km squares (called Tetrads) in the known distribution range, searching all suitable habitat within the tetrad and using sound recordings of the birds to get a response from any Willow Tits that might be present. Because of the previous record, Margaret Wood is in a target tetrad, and I searched it last year with no success. My efforts today were no better, but a negative result is still of vital importance for the survey, in order to get the best possible picture of the decline. Viv has been doing the same survey in Herefordshire, but they have not been recorded in Surrey, Sussex or Cambridgeshire for so long that it is not deemed worthwhile looking for them in some of our other farms; the last know Willow Tit in Cambridgeshire was over 10 years ago.

Despite this disappointment, the time spent in and around Margaret Wood was not without its moments of joy! The first and most important of which were the Tree Sparrows. So good to see that these are still hanging around the barn, where an array of nest boxes were being inspected and guarded by Tree Sparrows, and one House Sparrow, all staking their claim before spring gets fully underway. Tree Sparrows are also steeply in decline, at a rate  of -96% over 50 years, but their decline has stopped and the total population is larger than that of Willow Tits, but nonetheless it is a serious conservation problem. They are quite hard to count, as some of them are hiding in the nestboxes, some hiding in the undergrowth, or visiting feeding places, including the red millet provided in the Margaret Wood garden. I estimated 14 birds present, the highest number I can remember at the site. While I was there I delivered a new sack of red millet to keep them going for another year

What else on the woodland wanderings?

There was a good patch of frogspawn in the second pond, Wood Anemones and Lesser Celandines were starting to flower and a Peacock butterfly flew past while I was having my lunch.

I recorded the following list of birds (in order of appearance): Lapwing, Collared Dove, Dunnock, Wren, House Sparrow, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Starling, Wood Pigeon, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Common Gull, Carrion Crow, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Pheasant, Long-tailed Tit, Tree Sparrow, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Goldfinch, Treecreeper, Jackdaw, Sparrowhawk, Mallard, Jay, Redwing, Goldcrest and Bullfinch.

The Willow Tit survey required me to search outwith Margaret Wood, to do a full survey of the whole tetrad. The highlight from this was finding a pair of Dippers – these specialists of fast-flowing rivers were using the stream below Margaret Wood, the stream that flows out of Margaret Wood merges with several others on the Gunthwaite Estate, and was just big enough to support these marvellous birds – they are the only songbird that regularly go underwater to look for food! Not only were they a joy to see, they were also carrying nest material. Other birds nest-building or checking out their nestboxes were Blackbirds, Long-tailed Tits, Starlings and Crows. The very wet fields looked impossible to farm but were just what a couple of pairs of Lapwings likes the look of. A couple of returning migratory Chiffchaffs showed that spring was definitely trying to reach Yorkshire, but a small flock of Scandinavian Fieldfares are a reminder that it is still winter for some bird species.

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring 

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