The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is not an easy bird to see or photograph. I’ve been to quite a few locations over the years where they are known to breed (and it’s never easy to be 100% sure of that!) but never even caught sight of them. ‘A shy bird of the high canopy’ is often how bird books will describe them.
They are in serious decline and on the British Red List but also most likely under recorded as they are elusive, particularly as the breeding season gets under way and the high canopy becomes a dense area of leaf and twig, making them really hard to find or watch. The BTO puts the number of pairs as 1500 across Britain, although they are absent from Scotland and Ireland and have their stronghold in the south east of England. A small bird as well, 14cm in length, the same size as a House Sparrow but with a slightly longer wingspan, so all in all not an easy bird!
So it was with a ‘no expectation’ state of mind that I headed up to RSPB Ynys-hir for a couple of days of searching for this seemingly mythical bird. I wasn’t feeling too good either with a heavy cold setting in and with the forecast against me with rain on both of the days I was going to be around, it wasn’t looking too good.
I’d been in touch with Tom Kistruck, the warden at the reserve, and we had arranged to meet at 9.00am on the Thursday morning. I’d wild camped the previous night in the beautiful Artist’s Valley just across from the reserve but woke to heavy rain, not a good start as most birds will tend to hunker down in such conditions.
Tom told me of where the few recent sightings had been, one in the middle of the reserve with very little cover and the other from the Ynys-hir tree top hide. With the rain falling the hide was the obvious choice so I took the 600mm, beanbag and tripod and settled in for the long haul.
Tom explained the curious ecology of the bird during the breeding season. The female is apt to leave the young before they have fledged leaving the male to finish the job off on his own. It’s crucial therefore that the male is in really fine peak condition in the lead up to the season. So this time of year, early April, is crucial. It’s the birds opportunity to feed and reach prime condition and any prolonged poor weather in early spring could really affect the success or otherwise of the season to follow. Interestingly too they are long lived, 15 years not being unusual, and very site faithful.
The hide was empty, not surprising really with it raining and snow on the top of Cader Idris across the estuary, and the bird life non existent save for a Blue Tit foraging in the canopy. It felt like a long shot but there’s always the thought that you’ve a better chance of seeing what you’re after if you’re there than back at home. You have to be in it to win it!
I’d asked Tom how many pairs they thought they had. It’s difficult was the answer, one, maybe two. It’s a fairly big wooded hillside so again the chances were non too good.
To go with no expectation is always the best way but you have to enjoy just being out in the landscape, watching the weather, listening to the sounds and from a hide like this today enjoying the fact you’re dry with the rain persistent outside.
About 45 minutes in, another movement in the canopy suggested another Blue Tit, but getting the bins on it changed all that. A little obscured by the top twigs of the canopy was the prize! The glimpse of red meant a male, too obscured for a photograph but there it was. It seemed settled in that area moving a little like a mouse around the branches, scurrying would be an apt adjective. Then it darted closer and started its scurrying again but this time right in front of me and obscured by absolutely nothing. Ridiculous, things like this don’t happen. 45 minutes in, beautifully clear background and a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. The light was ok too with the tree top hide being high and on the edge of the wood, far better than bright sun when shadows become a real problem, particularly when in amongst a mass of branches.
It stayed with me for perhaps ten minutes in all, with a good three minutes in prime position. A quick check to see if all was ok with the images and then a warm glow of satisfaction. It might be back too. Another four hours and not another sign of him or her, it would have been nice to get her too, but that’s being really greedy. It was still raining so I headed back to the van for some lunch, checked the images again. A good low ISO meant these would enlarge beautifully.
The rest of the day was spent in Ynys Feurig Hide hoping for a glance at the now 17 White-fronted Geese that had made their winter home on the estuary (up from the 13 in January when we were last there, with one ringed bird coming from Islay in February!?) No luck, but then I’d surely used it all up for today. Now that the elation had worn off a little (but not much) I realised that my cold was really taking hold and decided on a retreat to my own bed rather than another night in the van and I couldn’t see me getting anything better, not today at least.
Like most things in life, luck or lack of it will even itself out over time and come to think about it I’ll be out later this week hoping for Dottrel on passage at Garreg Lwyd. It’ll be my sixth attempt and no luck as yet, so there we are!
It had been a great day and thanks again to Tom for helping out. We’re up again for a few nights in May when the Holy Trinity of Welsh woodland birds should be on offer; Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart. Now there’s a treat to look forward to!
Whilst on the theme of religious analogies, when I was in the Ynys Feurig hide I noticed an information panel that made reference to the great Welsh poet R.S.Thomas, who was minister of the Church at Eglywsfach from 1954-1967, that borders Ynys-hir. He was a great birdwatcher and spent many hours on what was then private land before it was bought in 1970 by the RSPB.
I quote below from the panel in the hide and although I’m in no way religious, I think it’s quite apt for the quest of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
In his autobiography, No One, 1985, he (R.S.Thomas) wrote that waiting for a rare bird is like ……’the relationship between man and God that is known as prayer. Great patience is called for because no one knows when God will reveal himself’