Ok, are you ready for an identification challenge? For five points, what's this, which I photographed hopping about on my lawn this week?

It's a curious looking thing, with its pale green smock and trousers with a bit of polka-dotting thrown in.

Congratulations if you said it's a Green Woodpecker, and here it is a couple of seconds later showing us that incredible dagger beak and characterful eye.

Well done if you've already got five points in the bag. Now let's 'up' the stakes for an extra five points if you can say whether it is a boy or girl, and a further five points if you can tell me how old it is. Here's another pic to help you before we get to the answers below.

Well, we can tell it is a male, because its moustachial stripe has a red centre. In females, it would be solid black.

And that polka-fotting we saw on the front is the giveaway that this is a bird in its first year just moulting into the unspotted adult plumage. Indeed, the pale freckling on the back in that third photo are also juvenile feathers, which will be replaced over the next couple of months with the unmarked colouring of the adult plumage, plus the crown will become solid red. So, this bird was probably born in May so is about four months old (but you get your five points if you said 'first-year' or 'juvenile', because I'm a very generous quizmaster).

Of course, one of the other things that stands out - literally - with my Green Woodpecker is that it is on the ground, which is one of the great curiosities of this species. We so often think of woodpeckers are tree-dwellers, but almost all of a Green Woodpecker's food is obtained on terra firma in the form of ants. Yes, they will sometimes hack off a bit of tree bark to get at beetles underneath, or grab a passing insect just because they might as well. But ants - boths adults and pupae - are the bulk of their diet.

And that's where there is one photo I really, really hoped to get, and that's my Green Woodpecker using the amazing device that it uses to ant-catch - its tongue. I've seen photos of Green Woodpeckers with their tongues fully out, and they are truly incredible - they actually look like they are swallowing a very long worm or piece of spaghetti! Fully extended, their tongues are a whopping three times the length of their bills.

In fact, the internal aparatus that controls this great whip of an organ wraps right around the inside and back of the woodpecker's skull and attaches near to its right nostril. Unlike our tongues, which are mainly muscle, a woodpecker's tongue is made of multiple tiny bones that have lots of slack at rest but can then be extended at will, allowing the tongue to flick rapidly in and out.

The Green Woodpecker then has sticky saliva which coats the tongue like living fly-paper. In addition, the tip of the tongue is so mobile and sensitive that it can wriggle its way into tiny holes and crevices. It means that with each sticky, licky flick, it can catch dozens of ants and pupae and whip them back into its mouth. Now that is one tingly meal!

Well, I almost got the shot I was looking for (below). It is a bit indistinct, but hopefully you can make out the worm-like tongue, which in this shot is only extended to about a third of its total length. In this photo, the woodpecker had been poking around with its head down amongst the grass, so I was lucky to get this photo as it sat up, still withdrawing its tongue.

So, what a fabulous bird, and a treat that I hope many of you get to see. There are only about 50,000 pairs in the UK, but if you have an area of short turf in a sheltered sunny spot where ants are allowed to do their thing, and if you have some parkland or woodland nearby where the woodpeckers can make their nestholes and where they can retreat when the get nervous, then you have every chance.

Oh, and congratulations to one of my baby Blackbirds who managed to photobomb the shot with some show-off hopping skills. Don't worry, I love you too!

Anonymous
  • I recognised it immediately, without knowing the sex or age, because I often see one feeding on the grass in the garden under my bedroom window when I open the shutters in the morning. There is in fact a pair as I have seen them both on the grass beside the front drive on the other side of the house. And I can recognise them in their flight across the garden or the park and in their distinctive call.

  • Yes, a beautiful and intriguing bird. Late 1970's, probably in the Malvern area, returning from a motorcycle autojumble, I stopped for a visit to some sloping, old woodland in the early morning. After remaining quiet and still for a while, some faint noises from 30ft or so caught my attention. Yes, a Green woodpecker working its way around the old bark, for some time, occasionally poking its beak in to prise out something tasty. Others, some in the late 1940's, often feeding on rough grass. Even now, their loud yelp, yelp, yelp calls are common, as is the Greater Spotted's drumming.

    A similar activity by a jay in a dead tree near home, which was very patiently digging around in the dead bark, and finding some good food. Unfortunately, being in full view of every hungry rival, who arrived? A bossy magpie! " 'ere, where's all this 'ere nosh then? Move over, it's mine." Up and down the trunk clambers Smarty, obviously expecting sandwiches and dessert everywhere, but with no idea of prising off the bark. It soon flew away hungry.

    Although this was on the very edge of the South London suburbs, I saw many unusual bird species-by today's standards- in our big old garden, Cuckoo sounds and eggs in the numerous small birds' nests were common, The highlights in the early 1950's were a shy Golden Oriole in an Acacia tree, and another time, a rose coloured Starling-almost under the same tree-crouching low under a plum tree, hurriedly taking off, much to my disappointment. No instant photography in those days! 

    Now, even the dawn chorus is sadly very muted. We have many trees and bushes in our present medium sized plot (amidst a local sea of grass and stone blocks) but nesting accomodation is limited. "We don't hear many birds singing now" is a comment often heard, but not acted on.

  • I used to live in a hamlet in the Fens in Cambridgeshire & had up to 4 Green Woodpeckers every day , eating the ants in my lawn....wonderful,..especially when Greater Spotted Woodpeckers  were in one of the trees at the same time!

  • I was trying to photograph a juvenile in a tree in the garden only this morning. The camera was not focusing well! We have them visit very often, I'm going to see now if I have any shots with the tongue out. The solution to fighting over bird seed feeders is to have lots! Have 10 currently with different foods.