Wildlife Wednesday – Great Spotted Woodpeckers

For the last month, we have been visited by a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, the male is larger with a black cap and crimson red rectangle on his nape, the female is smaller with black cap extending to the nape. To tell them apart look at the back of their heads as he has a distinctive red rectangle and she does not. They do not appear at the same time but the odds they are a couple are high. On balance we seem to see the skittish female slightly more than the male. They have been tricky to photograph but a couple of weeks ago, I came home to find the male clinging to one of our peanut feeders.

Male Woodpecker

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

We live in a house with very large picture windows, so whilst we can see out easily, birds can spot if I am moving towards a window with a camera too, so Pink Panther style I crawled along the floor, holding my breath and camera and slowly slid up a wall. He was still there, still seemingly hanging on. I could not believe he was happy to pose and began to take photographs.

Male Woodpecker with closed eye lid

Male Woodpecker with nictitating membrane across eye

When I looked later at my photos I could see he had closed the nictitating membrane across his eye briefly. I’ve since read this is to both protect the eye from flying debris when they are chiselling wood and to clean the eye surface in much the same way we do when blinking. The longer I stood taking photographs with only a slight breeze moving the peanut feeder I began to worry his claws were entangled in the wire and he was frozen with fear. I thought through the process of trying to keep the bird calm whilst I unhooked him from the feeder.

Great Spotted Woodpecker with passing Blue Tit

Great Spotted Woodpecker with passing Coal Tit

Other birds flew by, he ignored them and just as I was finally bracing myself to help this beautiful bird, he flew off. I looked at the time line on my camera, he had hung there for just over 10 minutes, completely still. I then looked his behaviour up and my RSPB Handbook of British birds reports that Great Spotted Woodpeckers ‘freeze’ when danger threatens usually on the side facing away from danger. Does he not know how gorgeous and striking he is, that the flashes of red are most alluring?

The female of the species was much harder to photograph.  Annoyingly, we also have a large Magpie in our garden that dive bombs the Woodpeckers. I think his/her behaviour may be protective as like Magpies, Woodpeckers can eat other birds eggs and chicks and although any Magpie eggs should now be hatched, fledged and on their way to adulthood, the Magpie probably had a bad experience. However, a few days after the male had been so obliging I was delighted to be able to slide along the floor again, up the dining room wall and peek out from behind the curtains to see the female Great Spotted Woodpecker engrossed with peanuts.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

The RSPB report they are the size of a Blackbird, the male seems larger, maybe its his puffed out chest. We occasionally see a pair of Green Woodpeckers looking for ants in our lawn but this is the first time we’ve been regularly visited by a two Great Spotted. Primarily living in woodland they use their powerful beaks to bore into trees and their long tongues to find the adults and larvae of wood boring beetles. Both the males and females also use their beaks to create nesting cavities within tree trunks and branches of mainly Birch and Oak. The repetitive knocking on wood sound is distinctive and joyful, one of the easiest birds to recognise by ear.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker and Male Great Tit

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker and Male Great Tit

Great Spotted are one of 3 UK Woodpecker Species, Green, Great and Lesser. The Great Spotted are a success story, with numbers rising rapidly since the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s according to the BTO. A new colonisation of Ireland was recorded in 2008, where previously there have been no Woodpeckers. The BTO estimates 140,000 breeding pairs in the UK. I continued to watch the female Woodpecker who in turn was watching the Male Great Tit.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker observing a departing male Great Tit

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker observing a departing male Great Tit

Then as the Great Tit jet packed off, I shifted slightly and she flew off too. We feel very fortunate to see these Woodpeckers visiting every couple of days, along with all of the usual suspects – Chaffinchs, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Sparrows, Blackbirds, Wrens, Wood Pidgeons, Jackdaws, a pair of Robins that so far I haven’t caught on camera but will keep trying. Pheasants, Long-tailed-Tits, occasional Goldfinches and the squabbling Starlings are all back too. But this month our honoured guests are having Wildlife Wednesday all to themselves.

My ever grateful thanks to Tina who writes the eye opening My Gardener Says blog for hosting this meme and for providing the opportunity to both share and to learn about other folks wildlife.

Happy Wildlife Watching!

49 thoughts on “Wildlife Wednesday – Great Spotted Woodpeckers

    • Its lovely to see them but we do not hear that wonderful sound of course, when they are on a peanut feeder. I’ve read they make the knocking noise instead of singing. Like you though I love to hear them in the woods, where there are plenty of trees to choose from.

  1. These are such wonderful photos! Well done for all that crawling along the floor and sliding up walls – it was worth it! How interesting that they have evolved safety goggles. I have only seen green woodpeckers here. I haven’t photographed them – if I see something worth photographing it’s usually accompanied by frenzied, directionless running around while I try to locate the camera, recharge batteries and find the correct lens. Wildlife photography is such a relaxing hobby! Happy Wildlife Wednesday!

    • Thanks Sarah, sometimes its best not to bother with a camera and just enjoy what you see. I keep a notebook and jot down things I’ve seen to remind me, I couldn’t share my drawings though. Happy Wildlife Wednesday to you too!

  2. Absolutely stunning photos, Julie. And so interesting about your woodpecker’s “freezing” in fear. I thinks it’s brilliant that you got not only great shots of the woodpecker, but of other birds passing through! You have quite a lot of avian activity! Thanks as always for joining in–it’s always a treat to read your posts!

    • Thanks Tina, your meme is like Christmas day without any of the stressful shopping, lots to prepare and share and look forward too. I think through all of this too, we are better wildlife gardeners for sharing our thoughts and aims. Thanks for hosting!

  3. Beautiful aren’t they. We have a pair, possibly not the same pair now, and have had chicks a couple of years running. I’ve noticed the same ‘freezing’ behaviour, even when there doesn’t seem to be anything around to scare them. I wonder if some of the time they are just having a rest! The male clings to the wooden pole underneath the bird table, especially when it is raining, maybe having a zzzz with a bit of shelter overhead.

    • Oh how lovely to see a pair with chicks and in your own garden, that must be very rewarding. Given the red flashes, the freezing behaviour seems such an odd strategy, that having rest makes perfect sense. Now we haven’t a cat, a bird table is next on our list to put in the garden, love the thought of your woodpecker snoozing underneath.

  4. How very dramatic! As wonderful for me to contemplate as these beautiful birds is the description of your panther-style stealth-sliding maneuvers engaged in to capture these avian visitors. I deeply appreciate what you (and others of us) are willing to go through to document wildlife in your spaces. It is, as they say, not everybody’s cuppa tea.

    Wonderful captures, by all measures well worth all the lurking about under windows. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • I really feel that interest in wildlife gardening is greater than ever before, at least I hope so. As gardeners we have a wonderful opportunity to provide homes for wildlife. Here, we live in a predominantly arable area resulting in wildlife habitat loss, but of course we need arable to feed humans. We will lose even more countryside to housing development, and we need the houses so even more important to help in the green spaces – gardens- we do have control over.

  5. Those are some wonderful photos Julie, you would make an excellent private detective, sneaking up to spy on your subject! I did not know about the eyelids of the woodpecker, isn’t nature wonderful?

    • Yep! Nature is wonderful, I really enjoy the relationships between plants and wildlife. A garden would be a very poor place without any visiting or resident creatures.

  6. These are fabulous shots Julie! (I should have liked to see the Pink Panther manouevres too! 😉 ) We also have green woodpeckers on the lawn, and in spring we often hear the Greater Spotted in the woods, but rarely see them. A really enjoyable post – thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you Cathy! I have tried on many occasions to photograph these two but they seem to be super sensitive to any movement. It was a high five moment when I finally got some photos!

  7. Great post and gorgeous photos Julie! I had to giggle when I read your photographing strategem! We have Greater Spotteds in our garden and they bring their fledglings to the feeders. A year or two ago I saw a young one on the peanuts. It fed for a while and then stopped and actually fell asleep! Its eyes closed and its little head drooped to one side! Poor tired baby! I had to stop feeding the birds early this summer because of squirrel damage. It chewed its way through most of my squirrel-proof feeders.

    • Oh Clare, that must of been such a heart warming sight. I would dearly love to see chicks here. I am sad to hear about the squirrel damage though, yesterday I was thinking of you as I constructed a ground seed protector out of an old hanging basket, that you had given me the idea to do. But here its to stop Pidgeons, I hope you find a way to stop the squirrel damage.

      • We’ve bought two more peanut feeders which are solid metal with holes punched in. We will see how the small birds cope with those. We will also get some plastic domes to go over other feeders as we have been told they work quite well. I would love to be able to encourage blackbirds and thrushes to my birdtable but rooks and pigeons get all the food first and the pigeons are so messy!

      • I am glad you have some more feeders Clare, its such a joyous activity. Pigeons are in a league of their own for annoying, I seem to spend a lot of time clapping my hands and waving my arms around! Good luck with your new feeders.

    • Thanks Kate, the red feathers are intriguing, I’ve tried to find more about the colouration but so far not much to report. The Juvenile has a red flat crown of feathers before the black cap of maturity and just the adult male has a distinguishing red rectangle on his nape. As its such a really vibrant zingy red I wonder if it is a warning colour.

  8. You have done so well to capture woody on camera. No sooner than I have got my binocs out and they disappear.
    They look so exotic yet I think I prefer the green variety and they are even harder to get a good shot of. Lovely!

    • They are a skittish bird, I really like the Green Woodpecker too – we had one this year digging for insects in the trunk of our cankered Apple Tree, which we did not mind as he was so handsome!

  9. Great photos. Unfortunately we don’t have woodpeckers here in the west of Ireland though they have recently appeared in Co. Wicklown (east coast) – probably after flying over from Wales!

    • I wondered why they did not go to Ireland until 2008, as its not far to travel compared to the thousands and thousands of miles other birds travel when migrating, but guess as they are not migrating it was maybe a wrong left turn!

      • Probably – they were here before but became extinct, not sure when, due in all likelihood to habitat loss. Great to see them back and breeding!

  10. Wonderful shots Julie. It’s hilarious the things we do to get the picture isn’t it? I readily identify with the stealthy approach to the window, I usually creep round the edge of the kitchen, but I’ve never commando crawled!

  11. Your photographs are amazing! They are a handsome couple, perhaps you’ll have a treat next spring if they teach their young the trick of feeding from humans’ bird feeders. I have not seen them in my garden in France yet but they used to made me laugh when I saw them hanging from the feeder in the U.K. Yours look much more elegant than I remember them. Amelia

    • Those two do look very healthy don’t they. And I hope we do see chicks, our own trees are not big enough for a decent nesting cavity but there are plenty of neighbours with large trees, hopefully one will be suitable. We are a 10 minute walk from woodland too where there are lots of birch and we do sometimes hear woodpeckers there.Fingers crossed!

  12. Such beautiful birds, and images of course! I had a chuckle reading the post; I also try sometime to take photos from inside the house, moving quietly along the walls 🙂 We also have a woodpecker around but I barely saw it a couple of times (I should lure it with a feeder like yours 😉

    • Without the peanuts, I do not think we would be able to see these Woodpeckers so close to our house.Luring is the right word! The nuts are imported into the UK, so come with a carbon footprint, but with our diminishing natural habitats here and that peanuts are such good high fat content winter food, we still put them out in our garden. Hope you do get to see one close up.

      • Actually I had no idea they like peanuts. I knew about the Blue Jays. Setting up bird feeders of any kind is very difficult here because of the so many squirrels and chipmunks, so it has to be planned very well.

    • Me too Donna, Tina’s meme is an eye opener, we have lots of excellent wildlife programmes in the UK but rarely get the chance to see what amazing wildlife inhabits other folks gardens around the world.

  13. They are gorgeous birds and that bright red is so striking. I enjoyed your detailed report and tips on just how you managed to sneak up to get those amazing photos. It’s always a challenge and some birds are so skittish.

    • Both the male and female are really striking, quite unusual that the female is just as bold, normally she gets the rum end of the colour spectrum. We were chuffed to see them both, but the Owl in your post is outstanding, I know you had to keep a respectful distance from each other in the end but what a privileged encounter in the meantime.

  14. the thought of you sliding along the floor out of sight made me smile Julie, my windows are medium size but the birds see me if I approach the window, the photos and your personal experience of watching these birds make it all worth the slide, you have a much greater variety of small birds in your garden than here, I have never seen either great or lesser woodpeckers, the information about them is interesting, nice to know they are on the increase, Frances

    • I was heartened by the increase report as well Frances, so often its doom and gloom for so many species. I have read on the RSPB site that Great Spotted have not yet been found in the far north of Scotland, but as they are doing well they may spread even further. Hope you have a lovely weekend.

  15. Lovely post! We have been following a family of magpies (slightly different here in Australia) and they were becoming quite at home with us. They have a nest in a tree in some bush land behind our house. Unfortunately (well it IS nature) a willy-wagtail has a nest at my next-door neighbours house. If the magpie comes anywhere near us now it is dived bombed by the willy wagtail!

    • Thanks, that must be a sight! I’ve just looked both birds up, they are different to ours, its interesting how species evolve in other parts of the world. Your wagtail is quite a different character to the sweet little Pied Wagtails here!

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