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Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor)
Green woodpecker (Picus viridis)

Where: Mostly broad-leaved woodlands and other places with at least a scattering of mature trees
When: All year round
How many: Moderate numbers
Lesser spotted, great spotted and green woodpeckers - illustration coutesy of Dan Powell
Lesser spotted, great spotted and
green woodpeckers
(illustration courtesy Dan Powell)

There's something about a drumming woodpecker that catches the imagination, lifts the spirit and stirs the soul as the sound reverberates through the New Forest's ancient woodlands. Deep, resonant, rhythmic: it's all of these and more.

Fierce beaks hit solid, bark-free timber, conjuring images of primeval forests undisturbed by man, each burst of multiple blows delivered at great speed, the woodpecker's warning to competitors, and mating call combined.

Britain has three resident woodpecker species: the great spotted woodpecker, lesser spotted woodpecker and green woodpecker, all of which are found in the New Forest.

Great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers are primarily woodland birds that drum quite a lot from late-winter through to mid- or late-spring, whilst green woodpeckers prefer more open places with scattered trees, and hardly drum at all.

Once fittingly known as pied woodpeckers, great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers are, predictably, black and white interspersed with variable patches of scarlet, depending on whether male, female or juvenile.

Great spotted woodpeckers are blackbird-sized and have a broad white shoulder patch, whilst lesser spotted woodpeckers are sparrow-sized and have white horizontal barring to back and wings, a characteristic reflected in their country name - the barred woodpecker.

The green woodpecker is the largest of the three. Unmistakable greeny-yellow, it has a contrasting crimson crown and dark moustache, and, rather than drum, it has an unmistakable, loud, far-carrying, raucous laughing cry that gave it its country name - the yaffle. Also known as the rain-bird, it used to be said that green woodpeckers were more inclined to call before impending rain, but more likely, the sound simply carries further in the atmospheric conditions immediately before rainfall.

To help grip vertical surfaces, woodpeckers are specially equipped with strong, muscular legs; long, incredibly sharp claws; and, most unusually, two backward and two forward facing toes on each foot.

Stiffened, pointed tail feathers serve as a prop to aid stability as the woodpeckers clamber up trunks and along boughs, but, unlike nuthatches, they have great difficulty in travelling downwards, and can very occasionally be seen attempting the manoeuvre in a series of awkward, ungainly backward hops.

Great spotted woodpeckers and green woodpeckers can be seen quite often, but lesser spotted woodpeckers are more elusive, for the most part remaining out of sight in the tree tops. They do, though, sometimes draw attention to themselves with a piping pee-pee-pee call that is used year-round; an agitated, rattling, almost mistle thrush-like alarm call; and a soft, single call best written as chik. Somewhat confusingly, however, Great Spotted Woodpeckers use calls similar to the last two mentioned, albeit at higher volume.

The drumbeats of great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers are also quite similar, although those of the latter are more prolonged, higher pitched, considerably softer and not so far-carrying.

Male great spotted woodpecker
Male great spotted woodpecker

Confusion can arise, however, even amongst the woodpeckers, for sometimes drumming by one species stimulates activity in the other, leading to somewhat one-side competition. As spring progresses, drumming frequency and intensity reduce as pairs settle down to raise a family.

All New Forest woodpeckers are hole-nesters that excavate their own cavities. Around six or seven eggs are laid onto, at best, a scant bed of wood chippings. And as nature has decreed for many hole-nesting birds, the eggs when first laid are pure white - there is little need for anti-predator camouflage, whilst white eggs are more likely to be noticed by potentially clumsy parents.

In all three species, both sexes incubate for around two weeks, and the youngsters fledge after another three weeks. Whilst in the nest, the young attract attention with increasingly raucous calls as siblings compete for every morsel brought back by frenzied parents.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers are fed primarily on a variety of insects, whilst green woodpeckers are particularly fond of ants extracted from their lair by the parent's unusually long tongue. Young great spotted woodpeckers, too, are fed on insects, although other bird's eggs are also occasionally brought back for them.

Female lesser spotted woodpecker
Female lesser spotted woodpecker
(Courtesy dreamstime.com)
Male green woodpecker
Male green woodpecker
(Courtesy dreamstime.com)

John Wise writing of the New Forest in the mid-1800s, referred to the green woodpecker as the 'common woodpecker', suggesting that it then was more numerous than the other two, or maybe its laughing calls simply made it more noticeable.

Nowadays, the great spotted woodpecker is considered to be the most abundant, both locally and nationally. Indeed, the British Trust for Ornithology suggests that great spotted woodpecker numbers have increased considerably in recent years, whilst lesser spotted woodpecker numbers have reduced.

The reasons for change are unclear, although almost alone amongst the three, great spotted woodpeckers increasing take peanuts and other food from garden feeders, which no doubt helps survival rates.

But for now, we can appreciate all three species here in the New Forest.

References:
The Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland: James Ferguson-Lees, Ian Willis and J.T.R. Sharrock
The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Concise Edition: D.W. Snow and C.M. Perrins
The New Forest: Its History and Scenery: John R. Wise.
All the Birds of the Air: Francesca Greenoak

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** New Forest ponies and other animals**
The New Forest
Commoners' ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but during 2019 agisters attended 159 road traffic accidents involving these animals, a small but disappointing increase on the 154 accidents attended in 2018.

Sadly, 58 animals were killed - 35 ponies, 13 cows, 8 donkeys and 2 sheep, whilst a further 32 were injured - 3 pigs, 9 donkeys, 11 cows and 9 ponies.

(Forty-three accidents occurred in daylight, 15 at twilight and 101 in the dark. Twenty-seven accidents were not reported by the driver involved).
** Always take care when driving **
New Forest seasonal highlights
November
Sika deer continue to engage in rutting behaviour, and will do so until December.
Pigs seek out the remains of the acorn crop.
Beech leaves
are transformed into a magnificent mosaic of glorious reds and golds. Other deciduous trees, too, take on an autumnal cloak before their leaves fall.
Dragonflies can occasionally be seen on the wing on bright days early in the month.


December
Foxglove leaves survive the winter at ground level, and offer the prospect of colourful summer blooms to come.
Redwings and fieldfares, autumn and winter visitors, gorge on haws and holly berries.
Great grey shrikes and hen harriers hunt over the heaths and other open spaces.
Honeysuckle by the end of the month often shows welcome signs of new growth.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley