Wildlife Notes

10. Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Article text
Male Greater Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), identifiable via red patch to back of the head which is absent in the female. Young birds have a red crown.

Canon 7D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender and ERF25 II Extension Tube
1/200
F5.6
ISO 500
Tripod
AV Mode, Evaluative Metering dialled to -1/3


Over the last few years my obsession with photographing these stunning birds comes a very close second to Nuthatches. Like Nuthatches, before I became more interested in wildlife I had only seen a few of these in my life and each was a real treat. My growing interest in seeking out these birds, and I believe an increase in their numbers in the Devon area over the last say 15 years, ensures they are now a regular inclusion to my sightings lists.

Their familiar calls, and spring drumming make their presence easily known but at times they can be very hard to spot even with their fabulous colourings and often times they will be hiding on the other side of a trunk or branch. For me they're also a bird whose size often surprises me, sometimes they can seem relatively large and other times very small depending on their location.

From a photographic perspective I find them a relatively 'easy' subject if they can be found visiting a regular feeding site. They tend to have predictable stopping points on their way to the food source and will often make life even easier by announcing their presence before they reach you. The other small birds will also often scatter which gives another clue to their arrival. If the food source requires working on they will fly to favoured slots to hold the food in while they set to work. All this predictability coupled with their general manner for taking time about things makes for an easy set-up and wait routine, typically involving a vertical frame filling composition.



Canon 7D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender and ERF25 II Extension Tube
1/60
F5.6
ISO 640
Tripod
AV Mode, Evaluative Metering dialled to -2/3



Canon 7D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender and ERF25 II Extension Tube
1/80
F5.6
ISO 640
Tripod
AV Mode, Evaluative Metering dialled to -2/3



Canon 50D
Cannon 300mm F4 plus 1.4x Extender
1/125
F5.6
ISO 400
Beanbag
Manual Exposure



Canon 7D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/320
F5.6
ISO 640
Tripod
AV Mode, Evaluative Metering dialled to -1/3

I trawled the internet and books to gather some general facts and stories for this article and in the end the following excellent article had it all, I therefore have no shame in copying and referencing it.

It was written by Michael J Seago and can be found at - http://www.birdsofbritain.co.uk/bird-guide/g-s-woodpecker.asp

"In recent times the great spotted has become the most familiar woodpecker due to regularly visiting bird-tables in observers' gardens. This bird is distributed over an immense range covering almost the entire Palearctic from Britain in the west to Japan in the east and reaching North Africa and the Canary Islands in the south-west.

As expected in a generally sedentary species with such an extensive range, the great spotted has been separated into a number of distinct sub-species both in size and in plumage as well as in length and shape of bill.

As many as 14 races are described in Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World (1996). This magnificent volume extends to more than 400 pages.

When searching for food a great spotted woodpecker usually alights on the trunk then works upwards and often from side to side. During the ascent it smartly taps the bark, prising off fragments and frequently extracting food from crevices with the tip of its sticky tongue.

Actions are jerky and the bird hops rather than climbs even when beneath a branch. It will work round to the further side of the trunk, often apparently to avoid observation.

The great spotted has a varied diet changing with the seasons. During spring and summer it feeds largely on insects, especially ants and the larvae of wood-boring beetles. Holes may be chiselled up to four inches deep. But in autumn and winter the birds switch to a variety of fruits, seeds and nuts.

Unwieldy nuts and pinecones are placed in clefts and hammered open with the bill. Particular trees are selected and the remains of food may be found scattered below these "anvil" trees. Some anvils have been used for years.

Local observer, Nat Tracy, who lived at South Wootton, has described how a great spotted worked 3021 cones between August 13 and October 30. Thirty-two anvils were available to the bird although it mainly used just four or five.
Another ornithologist recorded a single woodpecker which used two adjacent anvil trees and dealt with some 2000 cones in a single winter.

A cone is harvested by the woodpecker holding it with one foot while attacking the stalk until it breaks. After wedging the cone in the anvil it is worked by rotation at regular intervals in order to obtain the seeds from all sides.

Although feeding their own young largely on insects and spiders, great spotted woodpeckers are notorious for taking the eggs and young of other hole-nesting birds (especially tits and house martins).

At night this woodpecker roosts singly in tree holes. Where suitable ones are not available special holes are excavated.

A male great spotted wood-pecker has made regular early morning visits to a nearby towering beech. One branch, long dead, has provided a drumming post. The vibrating rattle produced by an extremely rapid rain of blows with the bill is audible from a great distance. If the "sounding board" is of the right condition it may be heard up to a distance of half a mile. Both sexes in fact drum, commencing in January and continuing until late June.

Usually a new nest is bored each spring rarely less than 10 to 12ft from the ground and often considerably higher. Both parent woodpeckers excavate and this task occupies between two and three weeks.

The creamy white eggs, five to seven in number, are laid during the second half of May. But many pairs are dispossessed by starlings and unable to breed until early June.

When the same tree is used in consecutive years the new hole is usually below that of the previous year.

My earliest diary records watching great spotted woodpeckers displaying. High-speed spiral pursuits round and round the branches of a silver birch occupied several minutes. On another occasion a pair launched themselves from the tree before flying in a very slow quivering manner with crown feathers raised and tail widely spread.

In parts of the country, great spotted woodpeckers regularly attack wooden nest-boxes. The eggs and more commonly the young of blue tits, great tits, coal tits and nuthatches have all become victims. The woodpeckers gain access to the nest either by enlarging the box entrance or by drilling through the side of the box on a level with the contents.

These woodpeckers have also regularly attacked colonies of nesting house martins by clinging to the side of the inverted mud dome and chipping away a hold. Other victims have included young treecreepers and house sparrows.

It was at one time suggested that it is the sound of nestlings within the boxes which result in attacks. However some entrance holes have been enlarged by woodpeckers during the winter, possibly for roosting.

By Michael J Seago"

Regarding damage to nest boxes, on my local patch during the winter months they dealt considerable damage to 30% of my boxes. I left the few worst ones and attached metal plates to the least damaged. This seemed to cure the vandalism at that time of year and so I concluded they were making roosting places. During the following Spring/Summer nesting season I was worried about their predation of nestlings but their vandalism was negligible in the end (of 27 nest boxes they made efforts to widen the hole on one). I also found that on one box with a metal plate they simply drilled through from another side, this was in the winter and so I assume they just really wanted to roost there.



Female Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/320
F8
ISO 320
Tripod
AV Mode, Evaluative Metering dialled to -1/3



This Woodpecker was using the hole made by a fallen branch as a convenient place to wedge its favourite peanut snack.

Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/640
F5.6
ISO 400
Tripod
AV Mode, Evaluative Metering dialled to -1/3