I have been marveling at the athleticism of various monkeys during the ‘Primates’ series on TV. The way in which they climb trees is astonishing. They seem at times to take their lives in their hands yet never appear to make fatal mistakes. I have been watching tree climbers here too, with woodpeckers well to the fore and scaling trees with utter dexterity, using their almost prehensile tails to steady themselves and their well clawed feet to rush up and down the trunks.
As previously reported, we have two families of great spotted woodpeckers visiting us on a regular basis, one of them resident locally in our orchard, the other presumably living in nearby woodland. When I first came here many years ago, the area was dominated by green woodpeckers, their yaffling cries – like someone or something laughing – was to be heard in every quarter. However, since the great spotted woodpeckers arrived, there has been no yaffling. I had heard before that great spotted woodpeckers were not tolerant of the green woodpeckers and the silence seemed to confirm that.
However, the other day, there it was, loud and clear, the yaffling call of a green woodpecker. I had been aware of their presence locally but this one was in a location where I have not heard a green woodpecker in many long years. Perhaps they are re-colonising this area? I’m sure that the great spotted woodpeckers may have something to say about that. Curiously enough, the green woodpecker spends rather less time in trees than you may think and spends a lot of its time on the ground because it is said that nearly ninety per cent of its main source of food is ants. Indeed, a green woodpecker, when it sets up its territory, will certainly have small or large anthills within that area.
The two woodpeckers share one thing – the colour of red. In addition to its black and white body plumage, the great spotted variety has a bright red rump and in the case of the male, a prominent red flash on the nape of the neck. The young great spotted woodpeckers – known as redcaps – have red crowns and so their name is indeed appropriate. However, the green woodpecker shares the red tint by also having a prominent red cap but otherwise, as their name implies, the remainder of their plumage is green.
I have been amused by the antics of the great spotted woodpeckers. The last batch of nuts that I bought are split nuts and therefore a few of them come through the wire on the basket and end up on the floor. However, the woodpeckers are not averse to picking up these fallen nuts and flying off with them. They take them up into one of the damson trees in the orchard where there is a special, chosen place for them to hammer away at them and break them down. But on other occasions the woodpeckers fly in low and attach themselves – somewhat abruptly - to the bird-table pole. Always remaining upright, they then proceed to climb the pole and are as adept at going up as going down.
The nuts falling from the feeder has also resulted in a pair of carrion crows sneaking in and very cautiously exploiting this easy to reach source of food. The caution displayed by crows and their awareness that they are not universally very popular means that they sidle in to snatch the nuts and then hop rapidly away with their prize. Once at what they consider to be a safer distance, they set about the nuts with gusto, holding them down with their feet and shattering them into many pieces which are then devoured.
Meanwhile near-neighbours are entertaining nuthatches, birds, which during the past few years have been progressing further and further north no doubt in some way influenced by global warming. Like woodpeckers, nuthatches are very much at home in trees and spend a good deal of their time travelling head first down trees, the only birds in the world that do this. They manage this curious behaviour by relying on their comparatively large, well clawed feet and generally manoeuvre them in such a way as to ensure that one foot is above the other, the upper foot as a pivot and the lower one as a support.
Frustratingly, I have only once played host to a nuthatch, despite the generous offerings on my bird-table but my neighbours now seem to have them as regular visitors. When they nest, nuthatches use holes in deciduous trees and plaster mud around the edge just leaving room for entrance and exit. The mud sets really hard and even woodpeckers with their powerful beaks find nuthatch nests hard to access in their search for food in the shape of hatchlings. The nuthatches also line their nests with the bark of conifers.
One bird that I often do see and which in habit, at least, partially mimics the nuthatch, is the minuscule treecreeper. This is a little nondescript brown bird, often also known as a tree mouse, that, like the nuthatch, spends its life exploring the bark of trees for insects. However, unlike the nuthatch you will not see the treecreeper heading head first down the tree. Rather do they start at the bottom and work their way up, round and round the tree exploring every nook and cranny of the tree bark as they progress.
The woodpeckers have a clear advantage in this respect however. The great spotted variety has an exceptionally long tongue which protrudes something like an inch and a half beyond the end of its beak. Furthermore, it is almost prehensile in its ability to explore tiny nooks and crannies for insect life. However, the green woodpecker goes one better. Its tongue reaches even further – as much as four inches - so it is able to explore all sorts of nooks and crannies for concealed ants.
The other day, we also had a flurry of swallows which ducked and dived like dancing dervishes where we normally see our own swallows zooming. But they were here one day and gone the next, and although a single one has arrived and sits on the overhead wires uttering that confiding conversation that certainly helps to endear swallows to me, we still await our own tribe of these delightful birds. A reader recently asked whether swallows, which have been denied access to old nests, will instead build elsewhere. The answer is yes.
The nuthatches and indeed the greater spotted woodpeckers, are locating themselves progressively further north as the years pass and I wonder if we might expect to see egrets in the not too distant future as they are also moving more northerly. The world is slowly changing with new and different birds turning up but one thing is constant. Elsewhere, the swifts have turned up and the ’devil screamers’ are suddenly muscling themselves bullishly around the chimney tops. As, the poet, Ted Hughes, once wrote,
“They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working,
the Creation’s still waking refreshed, our summer’s still to come.”