Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

May 2018



Walking through the churchyard recently I heard the loud call of a Green Woodpecker. This is a beautiful green-backed, dove-sized bird which has been heard by a number of people over the last year. The call is scarcely a song, more like a laugh, known as a ‘yaffle’ and this word is a traditional name for this bird.

There are three species of woodpecker in this country and two of them can occasionally be seen in the churchyard or nearby Maningham wood, as well as our gardens. The Great Spotted Woodpecker is much smaller than the green, about starling sized, but confusingly called ‘great’ and there is a third smaller, sparrow sized one, named the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which is actually rather rare and unlikely to be seen here.

Woodpeckers do not migrate in winter but brave it out here feeding on grubs which they dig out from soft or rotten wood in old trees with their strong beaks and exceptionally long tongues. The great spotted woodpecker will also visit bird tables in winter. When the green woodpecker comes to the churchyard it is to seek ants which live in large numbers in the anthills to be seen in the grassy parts of the churchyard. This is generally where we see them, but only briefly, because they are rather shy and head off to the wood as we approach with a characteristically undulating flight.

The sound of the green woodpecker’s call (or yaffle) travels quite a distance and is said to forecast rain, giving the bird another old name, the rain bird. Perhaps that is why we have been hearing him regularly this year! The great spotted woodpecker which is mainly black and white also has no real song other than a piping ‘chip-chip-chip’ generally coming from high up in the trees where a rapid drumming on a hollow branch is also a favourite means of communication. This bird, unlike the green one, seldom comes down to the ground and when in a tree will often hide behind a branch, like a squirrel.

Both birds nest in holes hidden deep in the heart of a mature tree which they excavate; the weaker-billed green woodpecker preferring softer wood. Spotted woodpeckers’ bills and skulls are very strong and adapted to withstand the pressure of hammering wood. One even hollowed out a nest hole in the electric pole in our garden! There are many birds that nest in tree holes, few actually make a hole themselves, many appreciate an old woodpecker hole as a safe nesting place!

Woodpeckers are totally dependent upon mature trees for food and for nesting sites. Whenever possible, old trees should be retained otherwise these interesting and colourful birds could be lost.

Andrew Tompsett