Thanks to volunteer Rob King for his article.

There has been much excitement recently at RSPB Pulborough Brooks due to a spate of sightings of a rarely seen woodpecker; the lesser spotted woodpecker.

There are three native woodpecker species in the UK. Let’s meet them.

The green woodpecker is a large, predominantly green, bird which often betrays its presence by a “yaffle” – a laugh-like call. They are frequently seen on close-cropped grass where they feed on ants, probing into the turf and licking them up with a long tongue. They are quite wary and when spooked will fly away with an undulating flight (a flight style that is shared by all three of our woodpecker species). The bright yellow-green rump is unmistakable amongst our British birds.

Photo: Green woodpecker by Chris Prince

At the reserve, the Visitor Centre tea-terrace is a good place to scan for one - the rabbit warren on Holly Bush Hill gives a close-cropped turf that supports a healthy ant population. If you have a garden lawn, you may be visited by a green woodpecker. They will require many gardens to supply enough ants to keep them going, so garden visits are likely to be occasional rather than daily. They may leave a calling-card; green woodpecker poo is quite distinctive – a cigarette-butt shaped dropping that has a white external casing and a black centre. Crumble one between your fingers (wash hands afterwards!) and you’ll see it fall apart to reveal hundreds or thousands of ant body parts.

Our other two resident woodpeckers are black-white-and-red affairs.

The great spotted woodpecker is a familiar bird to many, often attending garden bird feeders.

Photo: Male great spotted woodpecker feeding young by Chris Prince

It is starling sized and stocky with bold black and white plumage including large white panels. Sexes can be differentiated by the presence (male) or absence (female) of red on the back of the head. Juveniles are similar to the parents but have a red cap. That red cap means that they are often mistaken for our third species, the lesser spotted woodpecker. Lessers are a very different bird though. Much smaller than the ‘great spot’ - about the size of a sparrow. They have a ladder-like pattern and lack the large white panel of the great spot. Lesser spotted woodpeckers are an increasingly scarce bird in Britain. Numbers have declined so much that since 2000, there have not been enough observations to give an accurate census of their number. The reasons for the decline are poorly understood. Some have blamed the rise of the great spotted woodpecker (which is known to predate the nests of many tree-nesting species for eggs and chicks during the breeding season) but studies have shown that this is not the case. Both species have different ecological niches and have co-existed for millennia in many parts of Europe, including Britain. Latest research into the reasons for their dramatic decline points to low breeding success, perhaps related to changes in spring temperatures.

The frequency of sightings of lesser spots at RSPB Pulborough Brooks mimics the general trend across the country. Long gone are the days when the soft prolonged drumming of the male lesser spotted woodpecker could be heard drifting over the valley. Sightings have been rare and often brief. The recent spate of sightings on the reserve has thus been a welcome and exciting development. It is an unobtrusive bird. When feeding for invertebrates on thin branches, it is surprisingly hard to see, despite the pied plumage. The presence of a bird may be given away by the call – a kestrel-like series of quick piping notes. For your best chance of catching a glimpse, patience will be required. Recent sightings have been from Fattengates Courtyard, where a single bird has been seen feeding in the elm and birch trees. Our bird is a male - with a red cap. We hope that he may stay all winter and then perhaps we might be treated once again to the soft drumming call on still days in the spring.

Photo: Lesser spotted woodpecker at Fattengates by Rob King.