This morning I found myself at the wonderful Knepp Estate once again, for another session of bird ringing. I ringed less birds than last week although it was really interesting as there was a more diverse range of species.
The highlight of the morning bird-wise was catching a Green Woodpecker. This is the largest bird the group has caught when I’ve been there and really fascinating to see up close. When it’s in the hand there is so much that you miss when you watch it from much further away through binoculars.
For instance, one thing that we noticed was the tail, it was very strange. The tail feathers are adapted in woodpeckers as they are very stiff. This helps them when they are holding on to the trunk of a tree and they use it as a prop.
The main diet of the Green Woodpecker is made up of ants. They spend much more time on the ground compared to the other woodpeckers in the UK, the Lesser Spotted and the Greater Spotted Woodpeckers. They can often be seen on the ground on lawns, in parks and in other open spaces, hammering into ant nests and using their incredibly long tongue to hoover up the ants.
The open area amongst the scrub at Knepp is perfect for Green Woodpeckers as there are loads of ants nests. We often came across the poo of Green Woodpeckers, which is really distinctive. It is medium sized for a bird poo and easily identifiable by its appearance of cigarette ash. What’s really fascinating is that you can see the remains of ants when you break them open.
Despite having a large bill, it’s relatively weak compared to the two other woodpeckers. This is because as they spend more time on the ground, they don’t knock on wood as often. To construct their nests they chisel at soft wood and they rarely drum. Instead of drumming they have a very loud and distinctive call, which has earned them the English folk name of ‘Yaffle’.
They have very interesting breeding behaviour. Green Woodpeckers often pair for life, although they don’t socialise outside of the breeding season. They re-establish their bond in the breeding season using their loud calls and often a period of courtship. Both parents share the breeding responsibilities. What I find interesting is that often, once the young have fledged, one parent takes half of the brood out to teach them how to feed and the other parent takes the other half!
Green Woodpeckers are one of my favourite birds to watch. The genders can be easily told apart by the colour of the stripe that runs down at a diagonal from the base of the bill, called the malar stripe. Males have a clear red malar stripe bordered with black whereas females just have a black malar stripe. So, if you live in England, Wales or most of Scotland, why don’t you go out and watch Green Woodpeckers for yourself? If you live in Ireland, unfortunately they are only extremely rare vagrants there!