Mark–recapture data are used to investigate the impact of an exceptional winter flood on the population dynamics of an isolated bearded tit Panurus biarmicus population in north-west England. Adult numbers increased threefold (from 60 to 180 individuals) between 1992 and 2000, but declined by 94% during 2000/2001. This large reduction in numbers was caused by severe over-winter mortality associated with a prolonged flood of the Phragmites litter layer, the main winter foraging habitat of bearded tits, followed immediately by cold weather. At the end of the flood, bearded tits were 20% lighter than during previous winters. Population changes in other years were accurately predicted by annual variation in recruitment, and there was evidence that recruitment was higher following the introduction of artificial nest boxes and was density dependent. This study highlights the potential threat to bearded tits in Europe of predicted increases in the frequency and extent of winter flooding, and the potential utility of measures like artificial nest boxes that aim to promote recruitment. Recent extensions of methodology now permit a detailed exploration of animal population dynamics from mark–recapture data alone.