Saturday, 26 January 2008

Middle Spotted Woodpecker: Voice

Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius has a reportoire of calls, many quite unlike those made by its relatives. There is a distinct and diagnostic song made mostly, but not only, by males which is quite unlike those of any other European woodpecker. It is made throughout the breeding period but particularly just before laying, and occasionally in autumn and winter. It is usually composed of 4-10 slow-paced notes, though sometimes over 30 are made in a series and can perhaps be described as "kwah-kwah-kwah-kwah" or "kvar-kvar-kvar-kvar" or "gwarh-gwarh-gwarh-gwarh" or "gwaar-gwaar-gwaar-gwaar". It is a cat-like, meowing, whining, nasal, almost painful sounding "song" and is surprisingly far carrying. When establishing territory, courting or excited or annoyed, birds make this same song in a more rapid and strident manner. Sometimes just a single note or two is uttered. There is also a fair degree of individual variation. There is also a series of a rattling "ge-ge-ge-ge-ge" or "kik-kik-kik-kik-kik" notes, which to my ear recall a young Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus begging for food. THis is sometimes more like "kvek-kvek-kvek-kvek" and perhaps recalls some shorebirds, too. There is a slow but hysterical edge to this call and it is often uttered in a series, starting higher-pitched than it finishes, something like "kik-kik-kuk-kuk-kuk". There is a also a rattling call, a bit like that a call that Mistle Thrush Turdus vicivorus makes. These rattling calls may be contact calls and are made all year round. Though there is a typical single Dendrocopos "kik" or "kyk" call, softer than a similar call made by Great Spotted Woodpecker, most like Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, it is often rather feeble and not regularly made. A short, sharp "tek" or "teuk", again similar to other "pied" woodpeckers but lower pitched. Sometimes a Syrian Woodpecker-like "gug" is made, repeated and perhaps recalling Great Spotted Woodpecker but softer and lower pitched. Finally, there is a series of quiet, soft appeasement calls made between adults and recently fledged juveniles. Soon after fledging juveniles start to call like adults.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Grey-headed Woodpecker: voice

The most typical vocalisation of Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus is a song of some 6-10 fairly musical fluty notes “poo-poo-poo-poo-poo-poo” or “pew-pew-pew-pew-pew-pew” or “pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu”. Sometimes a slightly harsher beginning, perhaps like “koo-koo-koo-koo-koo-koo”. This call is made by both sexes though females usually make a shorter version. This call is sometimes a more whistle-like “kee-kee-kee-kee-kee-kee”, descending in pitch, at varied speeds, perhaps “kii-kii-ki-kuu-kuu-kuu". The classic version slows down to a lower pitched dribble after fast start. This “song” is quite easy to imitate and even a poor imitation can attract unpaired or particularly territorial birds. Alarm calls include a croaky, harsh kind of “yaffle”, not unlike that of Green Woodpecker but more of a panicking cackle than a laugh. A Great Spotted-like “kvik” or “kik” is often made briefly in flight. Other calls made when excited include a short, sharp “kuk” or “kook” sometimes in series “kuk-kuk-kuk” and “djack” or “kjak”. When Grey-headeds are excited or nervous they also make a gentle, soft “wee-wee-wee” and a gentle “chuck, chuck, chuck”. During courtship display males call “witty-witty-witty” in series whilst swaying and pointing the bill upwards. In addition, a gentle whinnying sound is made by birds at nest.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Black Woodpecker: distribution

Black Woodpecker is a widely distributed species in the Palearctic region. It is a resident, sedentary species which ranges across the cooler temperate regions of the Palearctic, in a zone falling roughly between 62 and 69 degrees north. Black Woodpeckers are not uncommon locally from Spain, France and the Low Countries in the west, to Italy and Greece to the south, as far as the Arctic Circle in the north and eastwards through the taiga belt into Asia. The nominate martius occurs over most of this vast area. In Europe Black Woodpeckers occur in suitable habitat from sea level to the timberline in uplands, breeding in 33 European countries, being absent only from Portugal (seen but no confirmed breeding), Iceland and Britain and Ireland. The species is also found on the island of Kefallinia, Greece, and used to breed on Sicily. In the Baltic Sea they are resident on Gotland, Aland, Bornholm and other islands.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Further reading

Here is a selection of articles on woodpeckers that I have published in the popular birding magazines in Europe:

In English:
Identifying the presence of woodpecker (Picidae) species on the basis of their holes and signs. Aquila, Vol. 102. (1995).
Black Woodpecker in Europe - Britain next? Birding World Vol. 11. 10 (1998).
The Rot Sets In (White-backed Woodpecker) Birdwatch, Issue 77, Nov 1998.
Pecking Order (Finding Woodpeckers). Birdwatch, Issue 81, March 1999.
The Identification of Syrian Woodpecker. Alula, Vol. 5, 3/1999.
Three-toed Woodpecker - species, races, clines. Birding World, Vol. 17. 5. May 2004.
Drum major (White-backed Woodpecker ID). Birdwatch, Issue 145, July 2004.

In Finnish:
Syyriantikan maarrittaminen. Alula, Vol. 5, 3/1999.

In Swedish:
Balkanspetten sprider sig norrut i Europa. Var Fagelvarld, 5/1997.

In Hungarian:
Atipikus farokmintázatú nagy fakopáncs. (Great Spotted Woodpecker with atypical tail colouration). Túzok, Vol. 2. No. 4 (1997).
Harkalyok nyomaban. Madartavlat, Vol. 5, No. 1. 1998.
Balkáni fakopáncs (Dendropcopos syriacus) műhelyei. (Syrian Woodpecker Anvils) Túzok, Vol. 4. No. 4 (1999).

In French:
Identification du Pic syriaque (Dendrocopos syriacus) et repartition en Europe. Ornithos, Vol. 3. No. 4 (1996).

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Quiz woodpecker 11

Here is the next woodpecker to ID... species ? sex ? Again, this should not be too hard. The photo was taken in Romania in the summer of 2006.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Quiz woodpecker 10

And which woodpecker species is this ? Is it possible to sex it? Again, this should not be too difficult to ID, though the bird is obscured and the light poor. Photo taken by Robert Tuff in Hungary in 2007.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Quiz woodpecker 9

What is this woodpecker species ? And sex ? And age ? Not too hard actually, though the bird does show a less than typical plumage feature. Photo taken by Robert Tuff in Hungary in 2007.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Encouraging and helping woodpeckers

Woodpeckers can be helped in various ways. They can be encouraged to occupy, or remain in, an area in various ways. On a small scale garden owning birdwatchers can feed Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Syrian Woodpeckers with peanuts, seed, suet and fat, especially in winter when foraging is tough (The Great Spotted in this photo was taken by Jari Peltomaki in Oulu, Finland). Green Woodpeckers are attracted to lawns, golf courses and the like, which have not been treated with pesticides. In some countries Grey-headed Woodpeckers come into gardens, too, especially to feed on fat put out for them. As Wrynecks do not create their own holes, they need natural or old woodpecker cavities in which to nest and roost and they can suffer when trees containing holes are removed for "health and safety" or other reasons. This species will readily accept suitably placed nest-boxes. Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers will also use nest-boxes, but on the whole the best policy for these species as regards nesting sites is to provide suitable trees in which the birds can excavate their own cavities. All in all, landowners, workers and gardeners should refrain from “tidying-up” hedges and trees, leaving some standing dying or dead wood for woodpeckers to open up in search of insect prey. Town councils should be encouraged to resist tidying up parks, verges and lanes, unless a clear safety hazard exists. Deadwood and mature timber should be left and felling resisted.
On a larger scale foresters can do much to conserve woodpeckers and their habitats. Stands of trees used regularly by woodpeckers for breeding or feeding should be left unlogged for as long as possible. If this is not practical then at least the most frequented individual trees in a woodland should be spared the chain-saw. Wherever and whenever possible dead wood or rotting timber should be left alone and the pruning of healthy trees also avoided. In forest monocultures, such as conifer plantations, a few faster growing deciduous species (such as birch) should be left and/or planted to provide some diversity.
In areas where forests are heavily fragmented ecological corridors linking patches of forest should be maintained. In all forests woodpeckers create cavities and those trees with woodpecker created holes should be spared the chain saw, not only for the sake of the woodpeckers but for he benefit of all birds and other wildlife that use them. In the case of Black Woodpecker holes (which are used by other wildlife species) this may be crucial to the survival of secondary cavity nesters. Foresters should be encouraged to set-aside and spare trees with holes. Such conservation measures should concentrate on living trees with holes as these are the ones that foresters may be tempted to select and fell. In areas with few dead trees the protection of living trees with holes may well determine whether or not Jackdaws, Stock Doves and various owls live there or not.
Where woodpeckers have expanded their ranges into suburban areas the single most important factor for successful breeding is a supply of suitable trees. To this end old and decaying trees need to be retained in built-up areas.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Woodpeckers in decline?

As a group woodpeckers are relatively understudied, globally they have not attracted the attention of as many professional and amateur ornithologists as most other bird families. In Europe, the Fenno-Scandic countries and Germany have a relative wealth of woodpecker literature, whilst there is a relative paucity of woodpecker literature from the Mediterranean and Balkan countries. The population studies that have been carried out in Europe have revealed that several species are experiencing declines. Taking the European continent as a whole it seems that eight species are declining and two probably have stable populations. Black Woodpecker is increasing in range and may be increasing in number, but this is hard to calculate as reliable figures are only available for certain localised areas.
Today one must explore Europe’s high altitude forested regions or the east of the continent in order to encounter woodpeckers in good numbers. Sadly, much of the west of Europe is now decidedly non-woodpecker friendly in terms of habitat, and it has been like this for some time. The bias in terms of both the number of species and numbers of birds towards the east is partly due to how the woodpecker family evolved and spread itself historically and to the evolution of habitats. However, there is little doubt that the low number of species found in much of western Europe today is a result of human influence rather than to “natural” factors. The creation of agricultural land (a process with started thousands of years ago), deforestation, re-forestation with alien tree species and general industrialization, have resulted in the removal of vast areas of original forest across Europe. These processes were more intense and advanced in the west of the continent, especially in modern times. In Central and Eastern Europe agriculture and forestry developed at a slower pace and at a less intensive level. Added to this is the fact that human population densities are also lower in Eastern Europe. This is not to say that all is well habitat-wise in Eastern Europe, and it should be remembered that the differences in land use and land management in modern times in the east largely came about by accident not design. Nevertheless, the result is that more forests and woodlands in the east of Europe are in a closer to nature state than those in the west . In fact, the diversity and abundance of woodpeckers across Europe closely mirrors that of human influence on the forest landscape. There seems to be little doubt that human activities across Europe have affected, and are still affecting, woodpeckers.
As an example, we can consider Sweden, a country with plenty of forest cover where eight out of Europe’s ten species are found. On the face of it this must be a paradise for woodpeckers. Yet, things are not as rosy as they may first appear to be. There used to be nine woodpecker species in Sweden, before Middle Spotted became extinct in the late 20th century. Furthermore, six of the eight species that remain are in decline, with only Great Spotted and Black Woodpeckers having stable populations. It is clear, and accepted, that modern forestry methods are responsible for this situation. A similar situation exists in Finland where a considerable number of forest invertebrates have declined sharply resulting in dangerous breaks in the complex food-chain. Claims by Finland’s logging companies that timber production in the country is ecologically sound have been largely exposed as false. The loss of (and fragmentation of remaining) original deciduous and mixed forests in countries such as the UK, Holland, Belgium and Denmark, is the main reason why so few woodpecker species are found there today. In countries like Austria, Italy and Spain woodpeckers only occur in healthy numbers in some high mountain areas which have been spared the worst of the agricultural and the forestry industries. This has resulted in the populations of some species, such as White-backed and Three-toed, becoming fragmented, existing in isolated pockets in unconnected areas. This is a situation which, in the long term, does not bode well for their genetic diversity.
Photo top left: Adult female Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major, Europe's most common and widespread woodpecker species. Gabot Vasuta, Hungary.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Woodpeckers in Europe: status, abundance

Globally, many woodpecker species are threatened or endangered. This is also the case for some species in certain parts of Europe. This situation is largely due to the degradation, fragmentation and loss of the wooded habitats in which these birds live. The conservation of Europe’s woodpeckers is inextricably linked to the conservation of wooded habitats. Woodpeckers are good indicators of forest quality. They are indicators of forest bio-diversity, as they are often rather demanding in terms of their ecological needs. Innumerable other woodland and forest species depend upon the same ecological requirements as woodpeckers for their existence and survival. Thus, besides being worthy of protection and conservation for their own sakes, woodpeckers are highly suitable candidates for so-called “umbrella species”. That is, the study and conservation of woodpeckers and their habitats directly relates to, and invariably results in, the study of many other species of plant and animal.The study of a demanding species, family or guild defines the basic requirements for forest habitats and landscapes. However, each woodpecker species uses a given forest differently and this fact is of great use to those studying woodpeckers and to conservationists in general. Subtle changes in a forest ecosystem can be detected via the responses and trends of woodpeckers. Each woodpecker species can be regarded as an umbrella species for all those inconspicuous, and often threatened, invertebrates that inhabit the same forests. In Finland and Sweden, for example, efforts to conserve White-backed Woodpeckers habitat also means that threatened and rare beetle species are also helped as they share the same old-growth habitat. Saving the White-backed Woodpecker means saving it’s habitat and hence all the diverse species that share it. Three-toed Woodpecker, too, is a species that can act as an indicator of the presence of rare spruce bark beetles, or in other words, of the condition of old-growth boreal forest.The conservation status of Europe’s woodpeckers varies across the continent. Species which are endangered in one area, may be common elsewhere. A range of factors, both natural and unnatural, have made this so. However, in many parts of Europe the factors which determine whether certain woodpeckers occur or not, and whether they are common or not, are most certainly not natural. In a nutshell, human influence has shaped much of Europe’s wooded landscape and this influence has almost always been detrimental. As a general rule it can be taken that there are fewer woodpeckers in highly developed countries than there are in less-developed countries. In highly developed European countries greater rates of urbanisation have resulted in an overall picture composed of landscapes of inferior quality and ultimately there is less suitable woodpecker habitat. Of course, there are exceptions but the relative abundance of woodpeckers in Eastern Europe (in terms of both species and actual populations) and the relative paucity of woodpeckers in Western Europe (again, in terms of both species and actual populations) bears this out. There is no doubt that forest biodiversity in Europe has been negatively affected by the economic advances and urban developments of the last 100 years or so.

Forest cover and quality

Since the 1920s the total amount of forest cover in Europe has steadily increased. Today around 30% of the European land-mass is covered by forest . This may at first seem a positive development for woodpeckers (and other woodland wildlife) but things are not as rosy as they might seem. Europe’s forest cover is largely artificial, that is it consists mainly of intensively managed plantations, plantations which are often mono-cultures of non-native tree species. Only a few scattered islands of "natural" old-growth forest remain, mostly in high mountains and in the east. In Europe only two woodpecker species (Great Spotted and Black) are regularly found in forests with low levels of tree species diversity. All other woodpeckers require essentially unmanaged forests with a rich tree diversity and a significant proportion of older deciduous trees. Today the most dangerous threat to woodpeckers, and indeed to all forest flora and fauna, is intensification in the forestry industry. In many parts of Europe "natural", old-growth forests have been, and still are being, converted into mono-cultures. A rich heritage is being clear-felled and replanted with trees of the same age, which are then felled at the same age. And if that were not cause for concern enough, some areas are planted with non-native tree species. Threats to Europe’s forest include inappropriate forestry management, that is, intensification and afforestation with alien species, pesticide use, logging of old-growth forest, fragmentation, road building, urbanisation, conversion to farmland, inappropriate water management (drainage, dam construction ) and general pollution. The successful conservation of Europe’s woodpeckers depends upon various factors being tackled together. They include the maintenance of wooded areas in which dead and dying trees are retained, the retention of stumps and snags on live trees, management of damp forests that includes retaining rotten timber and selective rather than blanket clear-cutting of trees.