That the Wrekin Forest is home to all three British Woodpecker species mightn’t seem particularly noteworthy but sightings of at least one of these predominantly woodland specialists are becoming vanishingly rare. In fact, The Wrekin is one of only a few Shropshire locations where our native trio can still be seen but establishing visual and aural contact with all three will require some knowledge of their movements, a little patience and a large slice of luck…
Woodpeckers spend a great deal of their time clinging to trees, a pursuit for which they are well adapted. Stiff tail feathers (used as a prop), four-toed claws (two pointing forward, and two back), and long tongues (capable of probing deep into crevices and fissures for insect food) all aid their largely sedentary activities. Yet, while these birds might not move very far, the lives of each of our trio are subtly different enough to make scanning all areas above and below the canopy necessary.
The Green Woodpecker is the largest of our native species and, contrary to the previous paragraph, spends much of its adult life hunting for food on the ground, seeking out anthills in short grassy areas. Although its vivid green plumage and bright yellow rump are striking enough, it’s the liquid call of this bird that is most likely to grab your initial attention. Beginning with a ‘kuk-kuk-kuk’ it quickly transforms into a far-carrying ‘laughing’ cry that, in readers of a certain age (i.e. those who can remember Bagpuss), is likely to inspire recollections of Professor Yaffle! Green Woodpeckers form strong attachments to specific sites and monogamous pairs will often reuse tree-nesting holes again and again. So, if you do happen across their distinctive calls, a return visit may well pay dividends.
By far the most common member of our trio of Wrekin residents is the Great Spotted Woodpecker. Typically found working tree trunks upwards and from side-to-side in search of insects and their larvae, this black-and white-pied bird also moves between trees with a very distinctive flight pattern, closing its wings flush to its body after every beat. This is the woodpecker species most commonly associated with the practice of ‘drumming’ — an attention grabbing roll of beak on timber that typically lasts less than a second but can carry for up to half a mile! Both sexes take part in this territorial, breeding-related activity, which can be heard between January and June.
Great Spotted and Green woodpeckers are both doing relatively well in the UK but the same cannot be said of their diminutive cousin, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Numbers of this treetop dweller have declined massively in the last quarter of a century, although they do appear more abundant in large mature woodlands like the Wrekin Forest. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker seem to prefer well-wooded areas with low shrub cover and plenty of standing dead wood for nesting. A reduction in this type of habitat is thought to be one of the reasons for their decline. While their high rise living habits can make them difficult to see, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are generally more active in spring. Like their Great Spotted cousins, they also drum but in a weaker, slower and more long-lasting pattern. Their feeding habits are also very different, fluttering between the outer branches and creeping outwards along their lengths to glean wood-boring insects and their larvae.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus minor): sparrow-sized treetop dweller and the smallest of our three species. Untidy black and white barred plumage — males have bright red crown. Call is a far carrying ‘pi-pi-pi-pi-pi’. Tree hole nesting (freshly excavated every year) occurs late, after Oak buds burst (young are fed caterpillars picked from foliage and bark). UK red-listed species and the fastest declining European woodland bird.
Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major): common, starling-sized, pied woodpecker with crimson undertail. Adult males have a distinctive red patch on the nape (back of the neck), which appears on the crown (head) in juveniles. Call is a piercing ‘tchick’. New nest holes are excavated every spring, rarely less than 10-12 feet above ground — where the same tree is re-used new nests are frequently made below the old ones.
Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis): large, heavy looking woodpecker with distinctive yellow-green plumage and red crown (appearing in both sexes); black moustachial stripe in male has red centre. Rarely drums, relying instead on far-carrying laughing call to advertise its presence.
Wryneck (Jynx torquilla): a non-breeding passage migrant member of the woodpecker family that could be seen passing through the Wrekin Forest in spring and autumn. House Sparrow-sized with pointed bill and delicate brown plumage.
While Great Spotted and Green woodpeckers could be seen or heard just about anywhere in the Wrekin Forest, the short turf immediately beneath the summit and the woodlands surrounding the open grasslands of the Ercall Quarries are a particularly good place to hear the laughing calls of the latter. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have been recorded here, too, but it is not known whether they still breed in the area. These little birds, which nest in dead timber in the upper half of live trees, are extremely site faithful and territorial. However, evidence suggests they may be more flexible in the habitat preferences than once thought, simply preferring a large amount of it… whatever it is! In other parts of the country, for example, they have utilised wet stream valley woodlands like those cascading down from The Wrekin to the Severn. While this has not been observed locally, keeping an eye and an ear out in Chermes Dingle or Lydebrook Dingle might just establish some groundbreaking new evidence! Beyond the forest landscape, Dothill Local Nature Reserve — in the northern suburbs of Wellington — is another local spot where Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have recently been recorded.