You never know what you may come across on a walk in the woods: a gingerbread house, the home of three bears, a witch or a woodcutter! Sometimes it’s something less fantastical but still a big surprise.
Our daughter-in-law was recently taking a stroll in the conifer woodland adjacent to their smallholding in Snowdonia. It’s a Forestry Commission plantation, now rather neglected as uneconomic. Western hemlock have spread like weeds – blocking sunlight, so little can grow beneath them except– and it’s an important except – lots of delicious hedgehog fungus which Lyn gathers, together with rare chanterelles, and cooks for supper. As she entered the wood she heard a loud bird call – a nuthatch, she thought – and she hurried to get a sighting. The wood rises steeply so, to pull herself up, she grabbed a slender Hemlock trunk only to find her fingers closing over something warm and distinctly feathery. Then – – with an indignant squawk – a great spotted woodpecker shot off into the depths of the wood. I guess he was hiding, safe, as he thought, pressed flat against the tree-trunk on the blind side. Both participants in the encounter got a shock!
GSW have spread widely over the past decades. They make good use of garden feeders and damage their reputation by preying on nest boxes. They can drill into a wooden box and won’t stop till they’ve made off with all the nestlings to feed to their own young, safely huddled in a good deep hole in a nearby tree. However, they are handsome birds with black and white backs and flanks, brilliant vermillion lower bellies and, in the males, a bright red patch at the nape. It’s entertaining, too, to watch a parent showing one or two youngsters how to use the feeders and then see their progress as they gradually get the hang of it. We were lucky enough to enjoy this free show for years till either the female died or the nest tree was felled: we now have occasional visits.
One evening, the female crashed into our sitting-room window and lay, concussed, on the path below, still warm. My husband donned thick gloves and gathered her up, whereupon she gave an indignant squawk – but remained semi-conscious. We put her overnight in a box in the garage. In the morning she’d drilled neat holes in all four sides of the box but, fortunately, remained inside. I carried her outside and away she flew. So my fingers, too, have encircled the surprisingly slight, warm body of a woodpecker.