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Are Great Spotted Woodpeckers about to settle in Ireland?

Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been turning up in many parts of Ireland and remaining for extended periods.  Are they temporary visitors or could they be here to stay?

Ireland is one of the only countries in Europe to have no resident woodpeckers.  Britain has three species.  In some years, a so-called irruption of Great Spotted Woodpeckers – the commonest species on the Continent – takes place.  This is brought about by the periodic failure of the pine cone crop – a major source of winter food – in Northern Europe and large numbers of the birds are driven out of Scandinavia to spend the winter further south.  In such years, we in Ireland can be lucky to record the occasional bird, but rarely more than four or five birds and most years, none at all.  And any that have turned up, predictably disappeared by March.

However, it is evident that over the last two years or so, a major change is underway.  A number of these handsome black and white woodpeckers have not only been heard “drumming” in several woodland locations during spring, but they have lingered on into the breeding season.  Drumming is the loud, rapid-fire tapping created by the bird beating its bill off a dead branch – the sound carries some distance and it is a woodpecker’s way of claiming territory and it is one of the best ways to locate them in a wood.  Although a striking and noisy bird, it can be remarkably secretive too, especially when the trees come into leaf.  Unfortunately, no nests were found, so breeding could not be proved in 2008.

However, in July, one lucky household in south Co. Dublin made a remarkable discovery – a juvenile, only a few weeks old and identifiable by its red crown, suddenly appeared on the peanut feeder.  This exciting find was quickly followed by up to three more juveniles at feeders in various parts of Co Wicklow and then others in Meath and Louth.  This strongly suggests that an historic event is taking place – Great Spotted Woodpeckers have started to breed in Ireland.  Could climate change have played a role in this, or are their other factors at play?

We are very keen to monitor the progress of this species’ colonisation of Ireland and would ask anyone who hears or sees one to contact us by e-mail, by post to BirdWatch Ireland, Unit 20, Block D, Bullford Business Campus, Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow or by phoning 01-2819878, giving details of location, dates and if possible the sex of the bird.  Females have a black and white head, males are similar but have a red spot on the back of the head and juveniles have a totally red crown (although these will have moulted into adult plumage by now).

For more information, see the article Knocking on Ireland's Door (PDF: 233KB), taken from the Winter 2008 issue of Wings, BirdWatch Ireland's quarterly membership magazine.

To join BirdWatch Ireland and receive Wings by post, as well as the other benefits members receive, please visit our Membership Section.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: juvenile (note red crown) at a garden feeder in Brittas, Co. Dublin in July 2008 (Dick Coombes)

 Great Spotted Woodpecker: Juvenile (note red crown) at a garden feeder in Brittas, Co. Dublin in July 2008
Click photo to download a high resolution version suitable for printing (3.2MB)

Great Spotted Woodpecker: adult male in an English woodland (Nigel Blake)

Great Spotted Woodpecker: adult male in an English woodland
Click photo to download a high resolution version suitable for printing (2.7MB)

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