Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The Little Drummer Bird! 23rd March 2019

We know of a reliable site in Northamptonshire where you can see one of our scarcer woodland residents, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We had already visited this site twice this year but there had been no sign or sound of Lesser Peckers but maybe third time would be lucky and perhaps we'd visited too early before the birds were ready to display. Last year we had seen the male Lesser Spot on the 24th March although it had been seen for a couple of weeks leading up to that date. This year it was late beginning its display and I hadn't seen any reports of it so far. There was a sunny forecast for the morning so if the bird was around we'd have the opportunity to get some good views and hopefully photos, last years visit had been made in the rain.

Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Northants, 24/03/2018
It was just us looking for the birds in the woods and apart from a few dog walkers and their charges we saw nobody else. We studied the area where we'd seen the male Lesser Spot last year and relocated the branch that he'd used extensively to perform his drumming "song". For almost an hour we saw little save for a flyover Sparrowhawk and the more common woodland species. Then I saw a woodpecker fly into a tree right at the edge of the wood but it turned out to be a Great Spotted. Nevertheless I watched it, a male, in the tree until it flew out. As it flew away my attention was captured by a smaller bird clambering up the side of an adjacent tree trunk, probably just another Blue Tit or Treecreeper I thought. Imagine my delight then when it transpired to be a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! I had found it without being alerted to any drumming or calling! We got ourselves closer to the tree but the Lesser Spot had worked its way high up in to the topmost branches and clear views were tricky. Mrs Caley had also seen it now so I could at least relax on that score.

Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Northants, 23/03/2019
After watching the Lesser Pecker for a few minutes in suddenly flew off into a neighbouring tree emitting its high pitched Kestrel like call, "eek, eek, eek.....eek", as it went. It continued "singing" from its new perch and it was only then when we saw the object of its desires appear from the other side of the tree trunk, the female! It's absolutely fantastic to know that there is a pair present and that would possibly indicate that breeding will take place. Because of the birds scarcity and the fact that they could be breeding, readers of this blog will excuse me for not giving out precise location details.

Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Northants, 23/03/2019
Both birds flew out together and landed in the top of a large tree to the west about 100 yards away and were lost to view. I could still hear the males song although very indistinctly owing to the distance. For the next half hour or so there was no further sign of either bird apart from hearing the song from the same area. Then without warning the male was singing again from a bough right above our heads, but we couldn't see it! We studied the canopy frustratingly for another few minutes then heard strong and strident drumming coming from the tree that the male had favoured so much the previous year. We were in, time to get some proper photos! He'd landed on exactly the same branch, obviously a preferred drumming post, and quickly belted out a rhythm. After I'd taken just 4 frames the Lesser Spot flew off the branch, dammit I thought, but thankfully it landed on a much sturdier branch just a few trees away and proceeded to hammer out a solo that would make Cozy Powell sit up and take notice!

The Lesser Pecker battered that tree continuously for over 5 minutes while I rattled off shot after shot seemingly in time with the Peckers pecking! We had chosen a day with sunshine too so I was able to far surpass my efforts of last year. For people who know the location of this wood, the chosen branch is another favoured drumming spot for the bird since I've seen other photos taken of the bird perched on it.

The Lesser Spot surely must have given itself a headache (of course they don't owing to having spring loaded skulls and neck muscles) with all that hammering and gave up to do a little foraging. He briefly drummed on a more slender branch but now seemed more interested in finding some lunch and carefully pried into the nooks and crannies of the branch.

A few minutes later and he was gone back to the wood to the west but we'd been generously entertained and were happy to leave him alone for another year. All of our views and photos were taken from pathways through the woods which is heavily used by dog walkers and other folk and the site lies next to a major urban area with all of its associated noise so these birds have become totally tuned in with their environment. We'll return again next year when hopefully the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, our 160th bird for the year, will still be drumming away.

We drove north to spend the afternoon at Rutland Water where there were still some wintering birds present and there could also possibly be some recently arrived spring migrants too. A quick lunch was taken when we arrived at Manton, no sign of any Ospreys over the pub, before we checked into the Egleton birdwatching centre. The information board promised us Smew, Red-necked Grebe, Bufflehead (!) amongst others, although over the next few hours we didn't see any of those! Rutland Water offers superb birdwatching from its numerous hides around the reserve. I wondered why we don't visit more often but it's maybe because the birding is so hide orientated, I am not overly fond of hides unless they are singularly occupied by ourselves. However, at Rutland you just have to watch from them. From the hide closest to the visitor centre, "Mallard" I think its called but there are so many that I just can't recall all of their names, we watched Oystercatchers display and pipe away noisily and witnessed a pair of Great Crested Grebes mating, not for the faint hearted since the female is rather brutally dealt with.

I really wanted to see the Smew, a species of duck that will soon be returning north to breed, so proceeded to lagoon 4 where up to 10 had been seen over the winter. We did indeed have the hide to ourselves but despite much searching I couldn't locate any Smew at all. There were plenty of other ducks around, good numbers of Pintail for instance but none of the striking black & white sawbills. We watched a pair of Great Crested Grebes perform their synchronised "weed" dance which is not only always a delight to see but also a lot more charming than the sex part! 

We moved on to the "Shoveler" hide, I remembered that one since we'd twitched a Long-billed Dowitcher there a few years ago, and again found it empty. Perhaps birding here isn't so bad after all. There was plenty of activity out on the water and we saw our first Sand Martins of the year. Those birds took the year list up to 161 but were the only new bird for the year seen that afternoon. Our attention was captured by a solitary Curlew that was feeding close by. Curlews are beautiful and understated large wading birds. They feed by probing that long curved bill into soft earth and mud and "feel" for worms and other subterranean dwelling invertebrates. This particular Curlew was very adept at finding food and we saw it secure many a morsel.

When full the Curlew needed to clean up and took a bath whereby it would use that long bill to get water into its feathers and straighten them out afterwards. Much stretching and preening would then take place but just a you thought that the bird must be clean enough it repeated the whole exercise again. It rather comically sat in the water for periods just gazing around as if to say to us "I'm having a bath, do you mind!"

We left the main reserve and drove to an area known as Burley Fishponds which leads into the South Arm of the main lake. This is the place where scarcer Grebes are usually encountered and I thought that the Smew may be there as well. They weren't but we did find 3 Slavonian grebes, one in full summer plumage, giving us a sign of things to come in Scotland in June. We couldn't find any Black-necked Grebes or the Red-necked Grebe though which would have been more welcome since the Slavs were already on our year list. 

Despite not finding the Smew and other good stuff, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker had made it a terrific day anyway!

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