Native woodpeckers: Their meal was a large caterpillar spiced up with a beakful of winged insects

The joy of discovering the homebred species: ‘I heard a curious sound coming from a mature alder tree’

Every March I listen to the woodpeckers in the woodland on our Co Wicklow farm. Hammering on the trees, they play their deadwood drums incessantly each morning but, as I walk through the wood, the drumming stops in one place and starts in another. Long periods of silence are their way of confusing me. They move through the tops of the trees with lightning speed but never give me a clear view. For years I had no idea if they stayed to breed. But then I found an eggcup-sized hole, high in the trunk of an alder tree, a perfectly circular excavation well-worn around the edges. But it was deserted and I almost lost hope.

Up to the present century, woodpeckers were known only as vagrants in Ireland and there was no conclusive evidence they had ever bred here. Despite birdwatching for over 50 years, I had never seen nor heard one until recently. Bones of the great spotted woodpecker had been found in caves over a century ago in Co Clare suggesting they were present in the Bronze Age. The finder, RF Scharff, wrote in 1906, “there are two small femora somewhat peculiar in shape which agree so closely in form and size with that of the great spotted woodpecker that I feel justified in adding this to the list”. It had always been assumed that woodpeckers had died out with the wholesale clearance of our native woodlands over the millennia. Then, in a dramatic discovery, a juvenile bird was seen in a garden in Co Down in 2006 but it took a further three years for the first occupied nests to be found in woodlands in Co Wicklow.

I went to visit the site of one of the first recorded woodpecker nests at Tomnafinnoge Wood along the banks of the river Derry in south Co Wicklow. As mentioned here previously, this is one of the few surviving fragments of the great Coollattin Woods that once covered many square kilometres around the village of Shillelagh. The oak trees are widely spaced and bilberry grows abundantly between the trunks. In May, there are swathes of bluebells. Sure enough, I did see telltale signs of feeding woodpeckers, a dead branch that looked like it had been raked with automatic gunfire, and I heard their drumming echo through the trees.

Back in our own woodland, the drumming continued but my search for woodpecker nests had drawn a blank. Then, in May, I heard a curious sound coming from a mature alder tree. It was a high-pitched kee-kee-kee-kee but the continuous calling sounded muffled. So, I circled the tree looking at it from various perspectives, wherever there was a gap in the foliage. I was sure it had seen me but, nevertheless, it flew to the hole and landed on a branch beside it. The response from inside was immediate and one well-grown chick poked its head out of the hole to receive a large white grub proffered by its parent. Success! I had proof of breeding woodpeckers in our woodland.


Day after day I returned and, as I watched from my makeshift hide of ivy leaves, the feeding visits by the parents became more frequent with a delivery every one to two minutes. Sometimes the meal was a large caterpillar, occasionally spiced up with a beakful of winged insects. Once or twice an hour an adult entered the hole and emerged with a faecal sack – nature’s version of the disposable nappy – which it dropped as it flew off. Eventually the chicks spent minutes at a time gazing out from the circular door of their woody home.

But my excitement was short-lived. When I returned in the first days of June, there were no woodpeckers around the tree and all was silent. There were no signs or sounds of the birds anywhere in the wood suggesting that the chicks had fledged and moved to feed elsewhere. I had a sense of sadness, as if some welcome lodgers had moved out without saying goodbye. But I was also left with a deep sense of satisfaction that this is, after all, a suitable breeding place for this woodland specialist which may have last been here when this same valley was filled with native woodland thousands of years ago.

Richard Nairn is an ecologist and writer. His recent book Wildwoods by is published by Gill Books