Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Gonalston, June 2014 © Andy Mason.
As most birdwatchers know, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is in serious de-cline in much of its British range. The reasons for the decline are not known for sure but work by the RSPB suggested low breeding success was a possible factor (see Smith et al., British Birds, 294-307 (2013) for a review). It would be great to be able to com-pare the results of the RSPB work with those from the BTO Nest Record Scheme to see whether low breeding success is a general problem. Sadly, over the last few years the numbers of nest records for this species have fallen to such low numbers that this is not possible.
I have been studying Great and Lesser Spotted woodpeckers for more than 30 years mainly in my own time but also as a small part of my work with the RSPB. Now I am retired I have maintained the interest and, if anything, expanded the studies. A few years ago I realised that the opportunity was being missed to collect im-portant breeding data from nests found as part of normal birdwatching – either be-cause the observers were unaware of the potential value of their observations or be-cause the means to inspect the nest contents was not easily available. So, in 2015, together with Paul Bellamy at the RSPB, I launched an initiative to help and encourage observers to find breeding Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, where possible find the nests and to facilitate the recording of their contents and outcomes. In 2015 and 2016 this has resulted in 10 nests being recorded each year, a big increase on the one or two reported in the previous years. In 2017 I am hoping we can do even better.
The arrangements are quite straight forward. If you find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nest, I will visit or organise a visit with a nest inspection video camera to check the contents. We have four video systems available and, depending on demand, after the first visit we can leave one with the nest finder to monitor the nest contents regularly until the young fledge. I have developed the nest viewing cameras over the last 15 years, initially to check out Great Spotted Woodpecker nests but as the tech-nology has improved I have been able to monitor Lesser Spots too. The nest inspec-tion is done from the ground with the camera on a long telescopic pole which can reach up to 60 feet above the ground and only takes a few minutes. The images can be viewed and stored on an iPad or iPhone. In visiting well over 1000 Great Spot and 60 Lesser Spot nests I have found no adverse impacts whatsoever on the birds.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are a challenge to all our birdwatching skills. They are pretty much invisible for most of the year and only in February and March do they call and drum with any regularity. Once they have settled on a nest site by mid-April they are very inconspicuous until they are feeding young in late May. They can be found nesting in any woodland but seem to be more abundant in well wooded areas and woods with high levels of dead wood or woods associated with wetlands. The best bet for finding breeding birds is to check out past sites. The birds seem very site faithful so often turn up in traditional sites over many years. Drumming and displaying drops off rapidly through the day so early morning visits seem to be best.
You can find examples of Lesser Spot calls and drumming on Xeno Canto. In general, the Lesser Spot drum is much softer and for a longer duration than Great Spot and seems to tail off at the end rather than ending with a flourish. But it is still possible to be confused by a soft drumming Great Spot. With patience, you can usu-ally see the bird to confirm.
The next and probably biggest challenge is to find the nest. There are a few tricks to help you with this but there is no substitute for persistence. If you find the birds calling, drumming or displaying in an area of woodland there is a good chance they will nest in the vicinity. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nests are almost always in dead trees or dead limbs on live trees. So in March, before the leaves appear, have a thorough check around the displaying area and note any potential nest sites to be visited later. They particularly like dead alder, birch, poplar, sycamore and beech but other species can be used. Then from April onwards make regular checks of these sites looking for birds, or any signs of nest excavation such as woodchips on the ground beneath the tree. Although it won’t help you in your first year my most successful strategy is to make a point of always visiting last year’s nest site. They frequently excavate in the same tree and have even been known to re-use the nest cavity itself.
If you find a territory, there is a small team of Notts birders who are willing to help with the nest search and monitoring (noting that all information will be treated in confidence, and no nest details will be published). Please contact Andy Hall firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 0115 875 9043.
If you find a nest please contact me or Andy as soon as possible so we can dis-cuss getting it inspected with the video camera. Please record the behaviour of the adults at the nest. Even without the nest inspection camera it is possible to work out the stage of the nesting cycle from the behaviour of the adult birds at the nest.
During excavation birds will be seen excavating a cavity but only when they are deep inside emerging head first to throw out woodchips is the cavity anywhere near complete. Lesser Spots usually make a new cavity each year but often return to the same small area of woodland or the same dead tree if it is still standing. Birds often try an excavation but move on elsewhere before completing a cavity. This may be an im-portant aspect of breeding so please record such failed cavities.
During laying and incubation the birds become very secretive and only change over every two hours or so—at this stage it is easy to assume the nest is no longer active. It is worth being patient and waiting to confirm that the nest is still active if you have the time , or return regularly to increase the chance of detecting activity.
During chick rearing the young are fed every 5-10 minutes and their age can be worked out from the adult behaviour. For the first week after hatching the young are always brooded by one of the adults so there is a changeover every time the young are fed. The young are usually fed inside the cavity until their last week when they can be fed at the nest hole with the adults only going in occasionally. For their last 2-3 days in the nest the young can be quite noisy making insistent begging calls (but not always) and can often be seen looking out of the nest hole waiting to be fed.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have been recorded exhibiting breeding behaviour at the following sites (during the period 2005-2015), so would be worth checking. If you do intend to survey sites specifically for this species, please let Andy Hall know, so he can direct other observers to different sites.
Attenborough NR Clifton Grove
Birklands (aka Sherwood Forest Country Park/Visitor Centre/Major Oak)
Clumber Park Rufford County Park
Welbeck Estate Wollaton Park Other sites:
Bagthorpe (Bagthorpe Brook) Bestwood Country Park
Bilsthorpe (no specific details) Bramcote Hills Wood
Brickyard Plantation Carlton Wood
Center Parcs Church Warsop (no specific details)
Clifton Hall Colwick Country Park
Gonalston village Hodsock Priory
Holme Pierrepont Lambley (no specific details)
Mattersey Wood Meden Vale (no specific details)
Misson Carr Newstead Park
Osberton Estate Owday Pond
Rhodesia (no specific details) Shireoaks (no further details)
Staunton Hall Strelley village
Thorney West Leake Hills
Ken Smith: email@example.com Tel: 01243 786079