Near the wood proper, I heard a marsh tit calling, and then, from some youngish stands of coppiced hazel, the tell-tale, scolding little ‘zi-zi, tah-taaah-tah’ of a willow tit. Two eventually showed up, feeding busily and staying mostly out of site. I followed them by ear – they’re talkative birds – as they moved along the trackside. When I did get brief glimpses, they were of bullish, bold-looking, slightly scruffy tits. I couldn’t make out many of the key details which would separate marsh and willow tits on sight alone – and it’s not exactly easy; if anything the major difference I could see here was colouration, with the willow tits looking distinctly and attractively peach-washed, darker overall than a marsh tit. For now, the call was more than enough and is generally the safest way to tell the difference.
Satisfied, I resumed pheasant-dodging and clambered back down the hill, taking in more fine views as I went. The countryside in west Berkshire is quite glorious. Absolutely unobtainable to the likes of you or me, of course, and I reckon it would be even better with a few more small farmers and fewer pheasants (some is fine, but the densities I saw last week are borderline ludicrous) – in other words more for the 99% than the 1% – but it’s lovely as it is, nonetheless. Clearly, the way the big estates locally are managing the woodland and field margins for game birds is benefiting other species. If the shooting ever moved out, whoever took over would have to find ways of affordably keeping the management up, for the willow tits and the bullfinches and all the rest.
Anyway, Berkshire had scored and willow tit was safely on my 2012 year list, but my real birthday challenge was to find them in both Berkshire and Hampshire. After a short drive a little way downhill and across the county border, I arrived in Netherton Bottom – a long, remote-feeling, usually very quiet wooded valley. I parked up near a gate at one end of the woods, well off the road and out of the way (that fact becomes crucial shortly). I’d not been walking five minutes when a cataclysmically loud bang let off nearby, possibly from the woods, though I was so startled I’m hard pressed to give a direction. Presuming one of the local keepers was about and taking pot shots at some unfortunate creature somewhere close by, I proceeded with utmost caution, expecting at any moment to be peppered with errant lead shot.
A minute later, and another bang rang out from up ahead, this time clearly out of a field in which grew a young crop. Not a gamekeeper in site. Just a bird scarer? I hoped so. On the bird front, during the occasional passing seconds in which I wasn’t being scared witless I had noted, well, not much. A marsh tit pit-chooed away invisibly up in the trees, which was close, but not close enough. Wrong poecile. I turned to retreat to the car, at which point the loudest explosion yet reverberated around the valley. Thinking I must be a goner for sure this time, I was surprised to find my legs still intact and operable. I stumbled forward towards a cloud of smoke drifting through the trees and across the road. In the field opposite hung a sinister decoy hawk with big red false eyes on its wings. And then the police came.
I nervously approached the police car as the driver slowed to a stop and wound his window down, just about resisting the temptation to say “what seems to be the trouble, officer?” (it was perfectly obvious to me what the problem was – I was under attack!). “Is that your Micra back there?” he enquired. “Yes,” I said, “why, it’s not parked in the way or anything is it?” “No, it’s fine, we’re just checking it hadn’t been abandoned in the countryside.” “Abandoned?! How dare you!” I thought to myself. Then, showing all the powers of deduction I would expect of a modern police officer, he said, “We thought you’d probably just be out birdwatching.” He must have seen the RSPB sticker in the back window. I can just imagine him jotting down this fact, underlined, in an evidence notebook. “Have you seen anything good?” Startled at this interest in the avian from an officer of the law, I explained that this was an occasionally good site for the otherwise very rare willow tit, but that I’d had no luck so far.
Still, I had a little courage left. Braving the bird-scarers, or nervous-birder-scarers, as they should be called – for that was of course the source of the explosions – I drove my apparently suspicious-looking Micra to the other end of the valley, where I’d previously found willow tits roughly a year earlier. More long-tailed and marsh tits were fairly active, but it didn’t initially look promising. I was about to give up and go to find some lunch (home-cooked at The Rectory, no less), when I heard, once again, a little buzzing call. ‘Zi-zi’. A pause. And then: “Taah, taaaaah.” Willow tit! In Hampshire, just about clinging on.