I've been trying for a willow tit (or "wit" to use a self-crafted shortening which I am trying to get into general usage) for a while now in the county and with the recent confirmed discovery of a pair frequenting Grimsbury Reservoir near Banbury I'd already made a couple of fruitless trips up there. As I mentioned previously on the second occasion they were seen on both days of weekend subsequent to my visit so a revenge outing was surely due. Conveniently I needed to head up that way anyway on an errand so I reasoned that it would be rude not to make another visit to the reservoir and I hoped that it would be third time lucky.
As I walked along the river towards the wood at the north end where the birds were generally seen it was soon clear that it was rather quiet bird-wise. There was not much moving or calling and I pondered what were the influencing factors that made some days and times alive with bird activity and others completely dead. Clearly time of day was an important factor and first thing in the morning is generally good but it was only about 10:30 and there was hardly a bird to be heard. The wits had generally been seen where the river meets the wood or alternatively along the canal bordering the north of the wood so I carefully scoured both these areas but there was hardly a bird to be seen with a brief glimpse of a kingfisher being the highlight. I was determined to spend a little time on trying for this bird so decided to do circuits back and forth between the two locations. After my third iteration I was starting to get tired and a little hungry so I decided to take a brief rest. I sat down along the bank of the canal and "zoned out" for a little, just listening for bird song. A few redwings went over as well as a buzzard being mobbed by a pair of crows. There was precious little to hear when suddenly I was aware of some "lit" (sorry, I'm going to use my new tit abbreviations throughout this blog entry!) calls behind me and I managed to spy a party of six or so in the wood just behind me. They must have been the advanced guard of a mixed tit flock because on the other side of the canal I was suddenly aware of various calling and feeding birds: a few bits and gits were calling and there was something working its way through a tree directly opposite me. I managed to get a decent view and it was either a mit or a wit. I generally feel that for a safe ID one has to hear the call but this bird certainly seemed to be a wit as it was rather a drab brown underneath and with rather dusky flanks compared to a mit which usually looks rather smart. I held my breath waiting for it to call but unfortunately it didn't. I'd held off using any sort of tape luring so far as last time I felt that it had probably been counter-productive but at this junction I played a brief burst of a wit call and immediately got back an answer coming from a little way into the wood on the opposite side of the canal. Could I confirm that the bird that I'd seen in the tree was the same calling bird? No and the call seemed too far off to be the bird that I'd just seen so I still didn't have a confirmed sighting. I waited and the calling wit or wits seemed to be getting nearer and suddenly a black-capped tit appeared on the far side of the canal and flew across into a tree not 10 yards in front of me and gave the wit call - Bingo! I got a good view of it and even managed to note the dull black cap, the pale secondary wing panel and the rather dusky brown flanks and drab appearance. The bird soon flew on into the wood behind me. I decided to head off in that direction as that was the way back to the car anyway and I soon caught up with the feeding flock again within the woods. At one point the wit came within about 5 yards of me as it worked its way through the trees with the other tits and one goldcrest that was part of the flock. They then moved on deeper into the woods where I couldn't follow so I headed back to the car and home.
I was most pleased finally to get my county willow tit though I did have a possible sighting in my garden some time last year: I was in the garden when I heard and saw a black-capped tit which was working its way down the gardens, stopping and calling every few gardens. I couldn't get a very good view of it before it moved on though I did note it had a rather bull-necked appearance. As I'd heard the call I immediately rushed inside to match what I'd heard to my MP3 library of tit calls but foolishly I didn't write down or record what I'd heard before I started playing all the call files and I soon realised that after having played back so many calls I'd completely forgotten what I'd originally heard! However I can remember that it was a loud and strident call but not a "pitchoo" so there was every possibility of it having been a wit, but I'll never know for certain. I now make a point when I have heard something that I want to match against a recording, of either recording my impression of it on my mobile or at least translating it into words to avoid this happening again. I also subsequently made sure that I knew mit and wit calls off by heart from then onwards!
One more tick for both the county and national year lists. I appear to have reached my 230 end of year national target already which is amazing. I'm not going to bother setting a new target but it will be interesting to see what the final total is. For the county list there are a few winter birds which I could still get: merlin (still!), woodcock, Bewick's swan, glaucous gull and given the quality of birding over the last few days who knows what else might turn up.
Oxon 2009 County Year List
189: Willow Tit 12/11/09 Grimsbury Reservoir (county lifer)
Official 188 + 4 sub-species
National 2009 Year List
230: Willow Tit 12/11/09 Grimsbury Reservoir
I didn't get any photos today but there are a few videos left over from the recent fab Farmoor day to post:
Record vid of the red-breasted merganser
The Slavonian Grebe