Zan’s wildlife column: Listen out for our woodpeckers
GREAT spotted, green and lesser spotted woodpeckers are the three species of the woodpecker that can be found in the UK, of which only the first two breed in Scotland.
Occasionally, it is also possible to observe a fourth species – the wryneck, although this species is a passage bird.
The great spotted woodpecker is a medium-sized, widely distributed bird that inhabits woodland habitat but can also be seen in urban parks and gardens. Adult males are black and white with a distinctive red patch underneath the tail and a red nape.
Females look alike but with a black nape and no red at all on their head. Juveniles can be identified by their red foreheads, which will be replaced by black as they moult in autumn.
These woodpeckers have an undulating flight that is a mixture of fast wing beats and short glides as the birds venture from tree to tree.
Even though their flight pattern is quite distinctive, it is much easier to hear a great spotted woodpecker rather than spot it.
The great spotted has three unmistakable types of calls: the loud, high-pitched ‘chik’ call; a longer chattering, rattling ‘krrakkaarr’ call; and the commonly known ‘drumming’.
The first one is the typical woodpecker call that may be in a form of a single sound or as a repeated series, though not considered a song. As well as their vocal calls, each species of woodpecker also has a unique ‘drum’. The drumming is made by rapid pecking on the tree trunk and ranges from eight to 20 beats per second.
This way of communicating is mostly used to mark territories or to attract partners. The drum is most common at the start of the breeding season, which is in spring and early summer.
Great spotted woodpeckers are omnivorous, feeding mainly on insects, larvae, seeds, eggs and fruit, but can also easily amend their diet based on seasonal availability. In autumn and winter, woodpeckers are often seen at bird feeders munching on fat balls and nuts.
When I started my adventure with wildlife photography and birdwatching, I was not aware of the vocal calls of woodpeckers and relied only on the easily recognisable drumming.
As I started spending more time with my camera and observing the woodpeckers, I also familiarised myself with the ‘chik’ and ‘krrakkaarr’ calls that are now my main identification tool whilst on walks.
Although I have my favourite local spots to watch great spotted woodpeckers, this species can be easily observed across East Lothian.
In winter, due to little coverage, I like searching for uninhabited woodpecker nests.
The nest is in an excavated hole in a tree, which is usually positioned at least two metres above the ground.
Woodpeckers rarely use the same nest again; however, it is not uncommon to see them bore a new hole in the same tree. If I find an existing hole in a tree, I may come back in spring to see whether a woodpecker family moved in.
It is important to watch any active nest from a great distance using binoculars, so the birds will not be disturbed.
In spring, when the drumming is in full swing and the sound is carried into the deepest parts of the woods bouncing off the trees, I take a great delight in listening to this relaxing music.
During lockdown, I was spoiled with woodpecker encounters as I could see at least one bird on each of my walks.
One encounter near Prestongrange Museum stuck in my memory. Chris and I were strolling through the woods and both of us heard the familiar ‘chik’ call. We were able to trace where it was coming from and slowly headed in that direction.
Usually, I am the one who spots wildlife first, but this time Chris was in the spotlight (making my defeat memorable) and pointed to an old birch with at least a dozen of holes.
Seconds later, we saw a male woodpecker landing on the tree with a full beak of insects, probably caught for his family. This was a sign for us to leave them in peace.
East Lothian Courier