30 Days Wild – Day 3

Today I was lucky to spot a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers that visited my garden. There were two adult birds, the parents, and also one young one, presumably recently-fledged. It surprised me that there was only the single young bird as Great Spotted Woodpeckers usually lay 4-6 eggs. I assume that either there wasn’t enough food available for all the young birds or the others had been predated just after they had fledged.

The first bird I saw was feeding on the ground, unusual for Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Great Spotted Woodpeckers mainly prefer to feed in trees unlike the Green Woodpecker which predominantly feeds on prey such as ants on the ground. It is possible that this adult was looking for the same sort of food as a Green Woodpecker would however, in order to meet the demand of its chick.

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I could see that this individual was a male, due to the red patch on the nape (the back of the head). Only adult males have this patch, it is absent in females, and is instead replaced with the same creamy-white colour as the woodpecker’s underparts. And furthermore you can easily tell a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker by the completely red crown. Overall I think that Great Spotted Woodpeckers look very smart regardless of their age or sex. They’re one of my favourite garden birds and I look forward to seeing how this family gets on.

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Yaffle

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!

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The juvenile male Green Woodpecker

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He’s looking at you!