There’s been a newcomer at our peanut feeder over the past few weeks. A young great spotted woodpecker has been coming several times each day and attacking the nuts fiercely as though hammering through the hardest bark. I say “young” advisedly. She has the chequered black and white upper plumage, the white underparts and the bright red flash under the tail of an adult bird but also a vivid scarlet cap – the sign of a this-year’s hatchling. Male great spotteds have a scarlet patch on the nape of their necks too, whereas females have none. Our bird’s nape is glossy black – I can’t even see where such a patch might develop.
Another sign of immaturity to watch for are the intricate black stripes around the woodpecker’s face. This gradually develops over the weeks. Some years ago woodpeckers were regulars in our garden. One year I was sure we had two siblings visiting, but it was difficult to judge comparative sizes when the birds only came singly. My suspicions were confirmed when I noticed one had much more complete facial markings than the other. Then we saw them together. The elder – and larger – of the two was on the feeder. He’d already had a good helping but, instead of flying off, remained clinging there bolt-upright, beak raised to the skies, denying access to anyone else. Dog-in-the-manger behaviour. I’ve recently observed our present visitor behaving in just the same way, while a gang of blue and great tits jostle impatiently on the fence awaiting a turn.
There are three species of woodpecker in our area – great spotted, green and lesser spotted, and the great spotted is the most common. It’s learned to exploit garden feeders and, alas, to predate blue tit nestlings in wooden nest-boxes. The other one you are most likely to see is the green woodpecker. Although it relies on trees for nest holes for breeding, it feeds on the ground and particularly enjoys ants, found in closely grazed pastures, on golf courses and, sometimes, on well-mown lawns. You can usually see – or at least hear – both species in Strid Woods in Spring: the great spotteds drumming their rapid tattoos on dead trees or branches, the greens giving their characteristic yaffle – a sound like mad laughter.
Only if you’re very lucky will you see the sparrow-sized, black and white form of a lesser spotted woodpecker or hear its lighter, quicker tattoo. They spend most of their time up in the canopy so winter woods give a better chance of spotting one.