London’s woodpeckers: the rattling call of the great spotted wood-striker

Woodpecker silhouette djg-1

This is an expanded version of an article that was first published in London Wildlife Trust’s Wild London magazine

It’s a sound that stops many in their tracks, the rattling in the canopy of woods, parks and gardens. It’s a sound that brings in the new year, signs of spring breaking through as our own seasonal celebrations draw to an end. While we are still deep in recognising our need to rest in the midwinter, our wildlife is busy setting out its quest for new life. Britain has three species of woodpecker and in January we begin to hear the hammering, or drumming, of the great spotted, the sound of male birds marking new territories. It’s a bird that is becoming more and more familiar to us in London as its numbers increase.

Its favoured habitat is oak woodland with plenty of rotting branches, trunks and limbs in which to create a new hole each year, ample habitat for the biggest of our two Dendrocopos woodpeckers, the great spotted. Dendrocopos translates from Greek as ‘wood-striker’.

One thing I have noticed in suburban locations is the woodpecker drumming on TV aerials and receivers. One great spot I’ve seen has found the plastic box now employed to improve TV signals makes decent percussion. It’s a wonder that this hammering on hard surfaces doesn’t cause the birds injury, but evolution has equipped them with shock absorbers in the back of their skulls that cushion the blow. It’s not the same as banging your head against the wall.

There are four members of the woodpecker family deemed native to Britain, with one now classified as extinct as a breeding bird. That is the wryneck (Jynx torquilla), a bird that migrates from Africa each spring in small numbers still. In 1904 a wryneck nested on south-east London, what was thought by the observer to be one of the last nests in his time, in south-east London historically.

Another of our four species has declined at a rate that has baffled ornithologists. The lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) was noted in south London’s woods up until 2008. The odd autumnal record does crop up as the lesser spots are migratory, with one seen in 2015 in Brockwell Park in Lambeth.

Lesser spotted woodpecker

One possible theory for the decline of lesser spotted woodpeckers (above) relates to the rise of the great spot and the disappearance of starlings from London’s woods as a breeding bird. When starling numbers were higher in woods they provided more competition for great spots.

This gave more space for the lesser spots, being much smaller, about the size of a sparrow or starling. As starlings and their ruckus have left the woods, the great spots have increased in number as they have experienced less competition and adapted to the boom in garden bird food. Lesser spots require a smaller hole in a tree to nest and if a great spot chooses the nest they can make the hole bigger and the lesser spots are pushed out.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers, however, are not extinct like the wryneck as a breeding bird and they still have strongholds in the UK. The most important place for them is the New Forest, one of the mythical heartlands of ancient English woods. There the management of the woods has remained the same for centuries, pointing to another reason for the species’ decline elsewhere. British wildlife is under increasing pressure from development and the loss of available food due to wider intensified management of the countryside.

So the two factors which are most harming lesser spots, and starlings, too, are a lack of habitat and food. The loss of food is a loss of invertebrate life being driven by agricultural intensification and a tidying up of green spaces, loss of gardens and general overuse of harmful, residual pesticides. Another key change is the loss of old orchards, another traditional habitat disappearing in Britain, one of the lesser spot’s favoured habitats.

The other member of the British quintet, if including wryneck, is the green woodpecker (Picus viridis). Green woodpeckers are different to the spotted woodpeckers because they don’t hammer to mark their territories but instead call, what was known for centuries as ‘yaffling’. An old name for a green woodpecker is ‘yaffler’. It’s a call that can be heard most clearly in woods and parks with mature trees, where green woodpeckers also nest.

Blean September 2016 lo-res djg-15
Oak woodland is a key habitat for woodpeckers

The call has a prehistoric feel about it, echoing deep into woodland, as the reverberation recedes. Greens differ again from the spotted woodpeckers because of their feeding habits, spending their time searching for ant colonies in woods and lawns. Naturally grassy sports pitches with a surrounding area of mature trees are a good place to find the birds. They lie low, shooting their long tongues down into nests to find food. It’s something you are very unlikely ever to see a great spotted woodpecker do.

For those curious and unsatisfied by the array of woodpeckers in London, remember that you will have to travel to continental Europe to find a greater diversity. Arriving in France you could meet with the biggest of all the European woodpeckers, the black woodpecker and heading as far as the great ancient woods of the Czech Republic, Poland or Romania, you can find as many as seven species. In British terms, the health of London’s woodpeckers reflect the state of the nation’s.

The cranes aren’t flying

March 2012 631

– Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk, March 2012

We’re standing on the raised bank overlooking Lakenheath’s reedbeds. It’s a warm, clear day but cooling gusts of wind disturb the peace, ushering us away from the viewpoint. On calmer days bearded tits move across the tops of the reeds, today they’ll be down in the cover. We pass a rigid poplar plantation famed for its golden orioles which breed here in spring, what is perhaps the only nesting site in the United Kingdom. The trees grow out of swamp and some of them have collapsed, the soil clinging to the upturned roots making the poplars look like toy soldiers left supine by a child’s swooping palm. The trees have sent suckers out along the horizontal trunk meaning a new layer of woodland is growing from the body of one of the fallen, a new understory naturally occurring from a man-made habitat.

The cover of the plantation lessens the wind somewhat, a green woodpecker yaffles from the cover of the trees. Along the bank are anthills home to yellow meadow ant. I’m with David Norfolk, a friend and expert ornithologist, and he tells me these are rare. The hills could be hundreds of years old. ‘They wouldn’t exist in today’s farmland,’ he says. ‘A tractor will destroy them’. He takes a small chunk of the mound and golden-coloured ants move busily across the grey soil held in his fingertips. On the other side of the bank a blue river runs away to where the sun is going, a flock of oystercatchers pass, chattering as they fly against the flow. On the riverbank near to us pristine white feathers are strewn like discarded quills around the skeleton of a mute swan. David has seen it before: ‘That’ll be a fox kill.’

We’re alerted to a faint, hoarse bird call wafting from beyond the poplars where a swathe of reeds stand for perhaps 200m all the way around. We stand to face the reeds and the wood beyond where trees have collapsed, fieldfares pass through on migration north on their return to Scandinavia. We hear it again, the muffled, bugling call of a crane. I have longed to see or hear these birds, Russian symbols of peace in the aftermath of Hitler and Stalin’s tyranny. The poet Anna Akhmatova described hearing cranes as she lay in her sickbed, the birds fleeing the dry autumnal fields after the harvest. Our cranes are not forthcoming but David is convinced they’re here. I’m prepared to wait until dark.

A group of men in their sixties arrive and we point out the vague sound of the crane, but they look in the opposite direction, instead to the sun setting over the lake. I suggest to another man that the cranes can be heard, he complains that he needs to sit down. ‘That’s a dog barking,’ he retorts. Bearded tits are pinging in the reeds, a water rail is squealing like a pig. We follow the path back to the start. The bugling goes on, it has to be cranes. But the beardies are closer and closer and even louder now. ‘Watch for their flight between the reeds,’ David says.And here they go, the pale brown flash and long tail, something I’ve never seen before. From behind us a crane calls clearly into the lilac sky.

F16s tear up the sunset with their apocalyptic thunder, a train careers along the bank next to us, the two carriages a little pathetic-looking and exposed in this vast open space. The lights shine inside, juxtaposed against the light dying down around us. The sun is stuck behind a strip of cloud and its colour cannot be revealed, jackdaws are roosting noisily in the poplar plantation, the green woodpecker continues its laughing fit, escaping its perch in an undulating flight overhead. The water rail is squealing still, a kingfisher bolts around a swoop of reeds. Two giant birds appear from the path we’ve just taken, grey and white. It has to be! Two cranes, flying together, approaching us on the bank, moving across. They are within a stone’s throw… but the joy evaporates. They’re swans and it’s a trick of the light.