Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton, and guest contributor Jim Stevenson, introduce the next in this series of informative articles.
A great spotted woodpecker hangs from our garden bird feeder, and it is also interested in the remains of a chicken hanging from an apple tree! Both the great spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker are familiar sights around the villages these days, but historically both these birds had a rather uneasy relationship with man – more of this later.
I am looking this time at a very successful family of birds, which occurs on every continent except Antarctica.
Of the 170 or so species of woodpecker and related species, we now have only three which breed regularly in Britain and one of them – the lesser spotted woodpecker – is now rare in most parts of the country. In Europe, around ten species can be found, but some are very elusive. However, some, like the middle spotted and the majestic black woodpecker, can be found just over the English Channel in the Netherlands. I can never understand why the black has never colonised Britain, as it flies freely over water and breeds in large woodlands, often near to urban areas.
In North America, there are some wonderful species, from the tiny acorn woodpecker to the giant piliated woodpecker. But in our lifetime, they have lost the legendary ivorybill, once so common in the dense wooded swamplands of the south. Many other members of the woodpecker tribe worldwide are vulnerable due to logging and habitat destruction.
This leads me to recall the fate of our own wryneck. This very unusual species is also called the snakebird for its ability to swivel its neck into the most unlikely positions. It is brown with a striated plumage, but only about the size of a song thrush. It last bred in Kent in 1968, but used to be found throughout lowland England, including old Huntingdonshire. Its demise was mainly caused by habitat destruction (again!) and, more specifically, the grubbing up of hundreds of fenland orchards. A few pairs may still breed in the highlands of Scotland. So, bring back the fenland orchards and we might get the wryneck back!
Regrettably, the charming lesser spotted woodpecker seems to be following the wryneck into local extinction. This kingfisher-sized bird used to be a “target species” for visiting wildlife groups, but by 2004/5, I reported that the bird had been lost as a local breeding species and by 2018 it did not even feature in our Annual Wildlife Report. The reason for this dramatic decline is unknown, but some observers think that increased competition from the great spotted woodpecker may be one reason. Have you any ideas?
Turning finally to our two familiar species, both the great spotted and the green have been targeted by man for years. Why? The main reason was that both species drilled holes in steeples and church roofs. Church wardens were ordered to kill both species on sight and were paid a few pennies for each bird killed. A church tower in Oxfordshire had no fewer than 130 holes, and was said to look like Gruyere cheese! No wonder both species were so disliked!
Today, we value both species. The green is probably the most common locally, with around 15 pairs – mainly on the reserve but increasingly being reported “anting” on village garden lawns. At the end of the breeding season, family groups can sometimes be seen around the Meadow and Heron Trails – the giveaway being the distinctive “yaffling” call. The yaffle is just one of 70 or so local names used for the green woodpecker in England.
The great spotted woodpecker needs little introduction, as it is now a familiar garden bird for many of us, with around ten pairs breeding locally on the reserve – but do they actually breed in the village? I think that the increase in people feeding birds in Little Paxton gardens must have been a contributing factor in the increase of this popular garden bird.
This is the time, in March and April, to hear both the green and the great spotted woodpeckers calling around the reserve. Look out for the great spotted on the Visitor Centre and Hayden Hide feeders, and at the end of the breeding season you may see the adults bringing young birds to these popular feeding areas.
All the best for successful woodpecker watching this spring!