12 February 2016

The noisy Great spotted woodpecker

Assistant Ranger, Julie talks about a master builder of tree holes within our woodlands – the Great spotted woodpecker! It certainly earns its name, for it spends nearly all of its life pecking at tree trunks. But did you know they are also housing developers, providing future homes for many woodland animals.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) perched on a bird feeder, eating peanuts, ©National Trust Images/NaturePL/Laurent Geslin

Bird feeding station, Tarn Hows

If you have visited Tarn Hows recently, you may have noticed our bird feeding station, and its myriad of visiting birds. As a child of about 8 or 9, I used to love watching the ‘back birds’ in my Nana and Grandad’s back garden, and my mum reminded me of the time I took it upon myself to buy them a coconut shell bird feeder for Christmas, using my own pocket money.  

And so, fast forward a few years, I now enjoy seeing the birds in my work back yard, at Tarn Hows, when I pass through each week.  In November, I was lucky enough to be there for the installation of new hazel hurdles for the feeding station (built by our Academy Ranger, Ted; Volunteer, Adam and Intern, Dale). 

 Installing the new hazel hurdle: Adam and myself in the foreground; and 
Ted behind hammering it into place, prior to drilling, November 2016

In the last few weeks, I arrived at work to find a note from my colleague, Ian, asking that I please top-up the feeders in his absence.  I was more than happy to do so, especially given the pleasure I have in looking out for my favourite visitor, the Great spotted woodpecker.

Woodland sounds

On my days off, I love walking through woodlands, and often stop and listen to see what I can detect around me.  On a still day, the clamour of animal life carries far, including, if you are lucky, the unmistakable drumming sound of a Great spotted woodpecker, echoing through the trees.

The best time to hear them is in spring, when the male will use his beak like a hammer to hit a branch over and over again in quick succession to mark out his territory – ‘this patch is mine!’  This is called drumming and it sounds like a machine gun echoing through the woodland.  Check out footage of the hammerblow, courtesy of the BBC, here:

I adopted a full-on stalker mode strategy a few years back in order to spot one close-up, and managed to creep slowly but surely to where the sound emanated from, and was privileged to watch the woodpecker drumming away high up in the canopy.  

Hammered home

Many birds and mammals nest, hide and take shelter in tree holes.  However, only one kind can hammer a home out of wood; only it can excavate a hollow from a solid wood trunk with its chisel-like bill, as a secure place to raise its brood – the Great Spotted Woodpecker!  It has special feet (see below) to help them grip the bark, and a stiff tail to help them keep steady as they hammer away.

woodpeckers have different feet from other birds – with two toes pointing forwards and two pointing back?   This helps them cling to tree trunks.  

Greater spotted woodpecker feeds chick at nest hole, 
©National Trust Images/NaturePL/William Osborn]
The male and female birds both work on making their nest hole high up in the tree trunk – usually at least 3 metres above the ground.  After all this hard work is finished, the female lays up to 8 shiny white eggs inside the hole in the tree.   The parents then take it in turns to sit on the eggs to keep them warm, and whoever’s not sitting on the eggs goes off to find food.   

Some weeks later the eggs hatch, and once this happens the mother and father woodpeckers have to spend all their time collecting insects for the hungry youngsters to eat.    

Finally, though, the young woodpeckers leave their hollowed-out home and fly off to make holes of their own. Check out BBC Springwatch footage here of fledging woodpeckers leaving a nesthole.

A woodland housing estate

Woodpecker holes, once abandoned, in turn provide a home for a long line of future home owners who adapt the holes to suit.  These include:  

  • Nuthatches – who narrow the hole entrance by plastering with mud.
  • Starlings – they use cavities of similar dimensions
  • Dormice – who have been discovered to use natural holes
  • Bats – summer residents of tree hollows
  • Stoats – an remarkable addition to this list, they can raise their families surprisingly high up a tree!
  • Grey squirrel - they will gnaw at the hole to enlarge it.
  • Tawny owls - who favour roomier holes (and even Barn owls if buildings are in short supply)

The Woodpecker's Incredible Tongue

The Great Spotted Woodpecker probes tree trunks for insects and larvae.  They have extremely sticky tongues enabling them to extract the insects from their nests.   

In winter months, when their insect food is scarce, their diet is supplemented by nuts and berries and they will visit garden peanut feeders.   

Good spotting sites in the South Lakes

So next time you are visiting Tarn Hows, look out for the Great spotted woodpecker at the bird feeding station.  Listen out for them in our South Lakes woodlands and if you visit Wray Castle, make sure you explore along the lakeshore.  If you’re quiet and listen out, you may hear one.  If you’re lucky, you may see one – I’ve spotted one down near the pier whilst working there.