2 Mar 2013

Nature Notes – March 2013 - Pete Lambert

Over a few chilly days I bodged together a new bird table to replace the battered rustic effort that had reached the end of its days serving the birds of the field and garden. Kicking a flat space through the snow I set up the none-too-bad service station and re-hung the peanuts and seed feeders. Slowly the birds checked out the unfamiliar platform and we were back in business. This year I had promised myself to set up a niger seed tube to try to attract our first goldfinches or bruise- eyed greenfinches. But the slap happy winds of winter had other ideas, overnight, bullying the table to the floor and breaking the top in half. Hmm back to the workshop. 

When the old table had been in business we were treated to the occasional visit from a Great spotted woodpecker. It has been long known that the woodpecker has a modified skull to absorb the shock of its habitual hammering.  The hammering is actually a form of communication and this can be tested when out in the woods. Choose a pair of dry sticks and knock them together to imitate the rapping of the woodpecker just heard and invariably they will come closer to investigate this possible mate. The drumming tempo of the Great spotted is steady in contrast to the high rapid staccato of the Lesser spotted woodpecker. The Lesser spotted species is the smallest European woodpecker and is generally confined to the southern half of Britain. The Green woodpecker rarely drums and by the latter part of the summer all is quiet from all three species.

All three woodpeckers have a distinctive slow and deep undulating flight. The flight pattern is caused by the intermittent flap of the wings followed by a glide, then the lift of another flap and a glide. Commonly they nest in tree holes which they excavate. Artificial nests can be created and those that are successful have cavities that have been filled with woody matter so the birds can still excavate the nest space. The Green woodpecker lays its brood earlier than its relatives, laying slightly more eggs per clutch, upwards of 7, though not all will survive to fledge.

Woodpeckers have a very long tongue which is tucked away in a coil inside the head. The Wryneck, a distant relative of the three British woodpeckers has a tongue 5 times the length of its beak. The Wryneck is a summer visitor to the far south of the UK but sadly is still in decline and is a very rare sight indeed. Our Great spotted woodpecker is conversely on the rise. Dutch elm disease assisted their resurgence and their omnivorous diet makes them more adaptable than other more fussy creatures. They like our peanut feeders which seem to appeal as they look a little like their natural pine kernel foods. Woodpeckers have long been considered pests for their timber tapping habits whether boat building oaks or telegraph poles. In fact in Elizabethan times an Act was passed to control ‘ noyfull fowls and vermin’ , what John Clare called ‘Nature’s carpenters’.  In that case I had better get our table fixed to save the neighbourhood trees!

It has been a wet and grim winter, a recent  brave and short cycle tour of the narrow lanes east of Ellesmere turned into a trial of man and boy against the elements. Fields have been and remain inundated. Crops lost and agricultural schedules gone haywire have made for a trying time, and tough times to come.  We snatched a solitary day sledging and then woke to find the white stuff washed away so rapidly that flooding could be the only result.  But in all this soaking misery the roadside clumps of snowdrop hold out a promise of better times to come, let them arrive soon!
Happy wildlife spotting,   
Pete Lambert.