The thing about the wildlife in your garden is that you become so familiar with what is normally there' that you notice instinctively when something appears that isn't. It's like a stranger walking into a pub that is usually only frequented by regulars.
So it was last weekend. My mum was staying and we were just sitting down to breakfast when something flew into the tree outside the lounge window that holds my birdfeeders. I reached for the binoculars (that always sit conveniently among the cereal packets).
Nearly choking on my weetabix, I was able to exclaim instantly what I was looking at, even thought I've only seen one perhaps a dozen times or so before. It is one of those birds for which there is nothing else quite like it.
It is a bird that occupies a strange niche in size - larger than a sparrow or finch, but smaller than a thrush or Starling. But it's that speckledly, freckledy, bark-like all-over markings and that fine dark line through the eye of this bird that really give this away as a Wryneck.
Everything about the Wryneck is gloriously odd. It's a member of the woodpecker family, but doesn't look anything like them, doesn't shimmy up and down trees, and doesn't hammer on tree trunks. Instead, it spends most of its time either inconspicuous in bushes and fruit trees or down on the ground lapping up its favourite food - ants. Mmm - that's a diet with a bit of bite!
Then there's the name - what's that all about? I've been fortunate to see a Wryneck 'in the hand' at Portland Bird Observatory, where the etymological origins became apparent. When caught, it slowly writhes its neck backwards and forwards in the strangest of contortions, movements similar to a snake. It is presumably enough of a scary manoeuvre to have saved its bacon many a time from a startled predator. It can even hiss like a snake!
It is even more unusual for a woodpecker in that it is a long distance migrant, wintering widely through Africa.
If you've never seen one, then it's not surprising - an average of just over 350 are seen in the UK each year, with only about fifty seen in spring and the rest mainly from late August to early October, thought mainly to be what are called 'drfit migrants' from Scandinavia. Most are seen along British coasts, espcially in the southwest and along the eastern seaboard.
So there is was, sat in my Cornus kousa, and its presence began to attract a crowd.
Up popped Great Tits to have a gander at the new visitor, with much agitated calling:
Blue Tits came for a good look. Notice how their vantage point was from branches above the Wryneck, like peering down from the safety of a gallery:
Next up Chiffchaffs:
You see, the thing is that my garden birds have probably never seen a Wryneck before, and it has something of the look of a miniature hawk or small shrike, both of which are birds to be feared. So this throng on onlookers were a mix of the curious and the perturbed. One sensed that the word went out around my garden and everybody, just everybody, had to come and check this strange thing out.
The sad thing for all of us here in Britain is that a sight like this would once have been run-of-the-mill. The Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds says, "At the end of the 19th century, the Wryneck bred over much of lowland England...[It] bred as far as the foothills of the Pennines and the Cambrian mountains." In fact, it was the commonest woodpecker in some counties.
But all that was to change in the 20th century, its range contracting south and its losses accelerating until by 1965 the population was down to 25-30 pairs and by the 1970s it was effectively extinct as a British breeding bird, with just the very occasional pair trying to breed over the last 20 years or so but no sustainable population.
The reasons? It is thought to have been a combination of factors such as the massive use of pesticides and herbicides, the chopping down of so many orchards, the switch from hardwood forests to conifers, and the ploughing up and fertilising of unimproved meadows. Each individual action probably seemed small at the time, but it is the combined effect that does the damage.
And it is the reverse of that which excites me. Each individual positive action you are doing in your gardens to help wildlife may seem small, but it is the combined effect that I believe will be powerful. It is perhaps over-hopeful to think it will bring back the Wryneck as a breeding species, but it will help ensure we cling on to a whole range of other wonderful species.
Recolonisation is a possibility, Vanellus, but would require more adults to arrive in spring as well as there being enough of the ant-rich habitats for them when they get here. The drift migrants we see in autumn are most likely to be young birds that will successfully reorient themselves back to where they were born next spring when they head north from Africa.
Is it at all likely that wrynecks could reintroduce themselves if we created more suitable habitat for them. I think there have been more sightings than usual this autumn in Oxfordshire.
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