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Please note: all photographs accompanying this article were taken by Dick Coombes under licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and may not be reproduced without express prior permission.

Great Spotted Woodpecker – a success story

Last year, Great Spotted Woodpeckers were proved to have bred in the Republic for the first time (see the article from the Winter 2009 issue of Wings magazine).  Seven occupied nests were found in Co. Wicklow and all apparently were successful.  Who knows how many others went undetected? With such a strong foothold established, hopes were high then that the population would stabilise or even increase over the coming years.

Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker at nesthole (Dick Coombes)

Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker peering out of its nesthole in a
Co. Wicklow woodland, just a few days prior to making its first flight

Outside the breeding season woodpeckers can be extremely difficult to keep track of.  Once the nests are vacated, adults and young disperse over a wide area; so, drawing a blank on a winter’s day in prime habitat means little.  The great worry for the “Woodpecker Team”, as they resumed searching in the Wicklow woodlands early this spring, was whether these new colonists had survived the severe cold snap at the start of the year?

Using the same techniques as in the previous two years – wandering through woods for hours on end, listening for drumming or the distinctive calls or even looking for signs of feeding marks on trees – a picture slowly emerged suggesting that the woodpeckers were very much alive and kicking!  At a number of sites, birds were found to be present where they had been in 2009: a good sign. Then new locations were unearthed, often with the help of members of the public reporting what they believed was the sound of a woodpecker (though it wasn’t always!)

Great Spotted Woodpecker at nesthole in Co. Wicklow (Dick Coombes)

Adult Great Spotted Woodpecker at its nesthole in Co. Wicklow.
The red patch on the nape of the neck denotes that this is a male bird.

Confirming that birds were paired off, holding territory and ultimately had a nest somewhere was a laborious task, involving hundreds of hours in the field during March, April and May.  However, in the spirit of no pain no gain, it paid off and by the middle of June 11 occupied nests had been located in Wicklow.  Factoring in all the other sightings and reports this year, a conservative figure of 15 – 20 pairs in the county seems reasonable as a minimum number and probably quite an underestimation.  Woodpeckers were also active at two sites in Co. Wexford: at one of them, though the nest was not located, young were seen and photographed coming to a garden feeder nearby in June – evidence that there had been a 12th nest.  This was the first proof of breeding for Co. Wexford.  There was also a smattering of other woodpecker reports from north Co. Dublin, Co. Meath and Co. Louth and several nests were found in Northern Ireland, where breeding first took place in 2006.

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding nestling in Co. Wicklow (Dick Coombes)

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding a nestling in Co. Wicklow

Young birds fledge

As far as could be established, ten of the 11 Wicklow nests fledged successfully.  Sadly, one failed: the young, having hatched and been fed for more than a week by both adults, were abandoned in the nest after a day or two when only the female was seen to bring food.  It seems probable that the male fell prey to a Sparrowhawk, as harrying of the woodpeckers had been noted several times previously.  Five dead chicks were subsequently removed from the nest.

Irish-born juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker (left) with its mother on a feeder in Co. Wexford (Dick Coombes)

Irish-born juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker (left) with its mother
on a feeder in a Co. Wexford garden

So, it seems the Great Spotted Woodpecker is here to stay. And while some mortality of young, inexperienced birds is to be expected (one juvenile flew into a window in Northern Ireland, for example), they are able to breed in their first year, so there is a good chance that the population will increase, albeit slowly.  Of course it is not known if the now-established breeding population is being supplemented on an ongoing basis by new birds from overseas.  The history of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in Ireland has been well documented.  Prior to around 2006, almost all had occurred in winter only and were presumed to be of Scandinavian origin, occurring in so-called irruption years, when the pine cone crop was poor in northern Europe.  British Great Spotted Woodpeckers are known to be highly sedentary, moving only quite short distances during their whole lives.  Now we have an apparently sedentary breeding population in Ireland, which leads to the big question: where did the original pioneers that stayed on to breed here come from in the first place?

The answer may well lie close to hand.  The British population has increased dramatically in recent decades (by some 400% in the last 40 years), so despite their reluctance to venture great distances, the sheer pressure of numbers may have triggered a range expansion of British birds across the relatively narrow Irish Sea.  They could, of course, have spread from some other part of Europe.  In an effort to resolve this mystery, the Wicklow Woodpecker Study Group has been collecting feather samples from old nests, and with the help of funding from the Heritage Council they have commissioned a genetics expert to carry out DNA analysis.  The hope is that direct comparisons of Great Spotted Woodpecker DNA profiles across several European countries will reveal the likely origin of “our” birds.  The first results are expected in the coming months.

Juvenile woodpecker on a feeder in Co. Wexford (Dick Coombes)

Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker on a feeder in Co. Wexford.
Note the use of its tail for support, which is characteristic of woodpeckers.

What next?

The story is far from over and each report of a new bird adds another vital, intriguing piece to the jigsaw.  So far, the Great Spotted Woodpecker is established as a breeding species in six 10 km squares in Wicklow and Wexford (from none at all two years ago) – good timing for inclusion in the Breeding Atlas which completes its fourth and final year in 2011.  This summer, woodpeckers have been reported gorging themselves at nut feeders in at least five gardens, sometimes an adult with a juvenile (told by its red crown), so keep your eyes peeled!  We at BirdWatch Ireland are very keen to document these records and track how the bird’s range and population may be increasing or shifting.  If you see one in your garden or in the woods, please contact us with the details as soon as possible.  Who knows, in a few years time, these magic birds may be much more common and the wonderfully evocative sound of drumming will echo through all our parks and woodlands.

Dick Coombes

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