Growing up near the Hampshire/Surrey border and only really getting into birding properly as the species vanished from its last remaining Surrey haunts, Willow Tit was never going to be an easy bird for me to find. I'd attended a ringing session at Rich Horton's brother's house in Forest Green several years ago where Rich had seen Willow Tit previously, but this attempt proved fruitless despite us playing a tape lure throughout the morning. And to be honest that was the only time I'd actively tried to find the species. It's bad I know but I just assumed I'd see one one day. As the years went by though I realised that simply wasn't going to happen and I was going to have to make a special trip if I wanted to catch up with this enigmatic and rapidly declining species.
As I'd worked on Sunday to help with a presentation my boss kindly said I could take Monday off in lieu. A rare day off in the week; I knew I had to get in some quality birding time, but where to go? The rarest bird within reasonable driving distance was the Pine Bunting in Little Murston, Kent, but having followed the reports it seems people have either been and dipped and said it's a miserable place, or been, waited four hours and seen the bird for a matter of seconds, and still said it's a miserable place. It didn't exactly fill me with enthusiasm. So another option sprang to mind - when better to finally catch up with a long overdue Willow Tit?
Ed Stubbs had mentioned Combe Wood in Berkshire to me last year and we'd talked about going a few times but not yet got round to it. So, with my mind made up and with a bit of help from Google Maps and Chris Burch I found the place, parked up and began walking up the hill towards the wood. The first thing that struck me about the habitat was how entirely unremarkable it was. The footpath followed a wooded corridor up the hill between farmland and eventually opened up into a larger patch of mixed woodland. There were areas of recently coppiced Hazel and grain feeders dotted about all over the place. Really the whole setting could have so easily been lifted out of any number of sites I've frequented in south-west Surrey.
|The track up to Combe Wood|
I sensed at this point that I'd walked too far. I managed to get enough phone signal to check Google Maps which indeed told me I'd nearly gone all the way through the wood so I turned round and headed back up the hill with a view to stopping somewhere and hoping the Willow Tits would come to me. Still, I'd been walking for over an hour now and with the rain getting steadier I'd be lying if I said my hopes were not fading a little. I walked up the hill at a slightly brisker pace than I'd descended and surprised myself how quickly I emerged on the other side of the wood again. I was just considering my options as I wiped the rain off my bins and wondering whether to write the whole thing off and come back on a better day when...
That unmistakeable scolding 'chay chay chay': Willow Tit! 'YES!', I said out loud (thankfully there was still nobody in sight). Just the one bird but it was enough for me. For around a quarter of an hour I watched it flitting about, sometimes losing it altogether for a few moments in the brambles. Ravens were cronking around the whole time as I revelled in watching the bird and tried to take a few photos. The irony of blocking out their calls as I strained to keep track of a single Willow Tit was not lost on me and I couldn't help but wonder what a birder from 50 years or so ago might make of it all were they somehow transported to this exact moment. As the bird again disappeared into denser vegetation I decided to leave it in peace and head back to my car. I hoped I might run into another on the way back down the hill as the weather was showing signs of brightening a little, but no such luck. Still, I was delighted to have finally connected with Willow Tit. Whatever other species I might see to take me to my target of 300 on my UK list by the end of 2017, this one will certainly last in the memory for a long time.