Birds returning to make Ireland home

While eagles and kites were being reintroduced to Ireland, buzzards organised their own recolonisation, writes Richard Collins. 

They too had been persecuted to the brink of extinction. Then, in 1933, a single pair bred in Antrim. Nobody is sure what inspired them, but birds from Ulster’s tiny relict population set out, like the missionaries of old, to reclaim their lost heritage. Buzzards now occupy the eastern two-thirds of our island, even challenging the sparrowhawk’s claim to be the commonest bird of prey in some areas.

Meanwhile, another glamorous exile has returned; it is over a decade since the first Irish nest of a great spotted woodpecker was found. Dick Coombes celebrates the find in the current edition of Wings, BirdWatch Ireland’s magazine, and Declan Murphy, one
of the people who searched for the bird then, has written a book about the experience.

The great spotted woodpecker, thrush-sized, is black and white above, paler underneath with a red bottom. Found from the Atlantic to eastern tip of Asia, it has the widest range of any woodpecker. Living in broadleaved and evergreen woodland, and frequenting suburban gardens, it’s the woodpecker species most often seen in Europe. Woodpeckers probably bred here in ancient times; two bones, found in caves in Co Clare, came from strata dated to early Christian times. Conditions here, prior to the destruction of the last great forests in the 17th century, would have suited these birds.

Great spotteds have several calls but don’t really sing. They produce a staccato sound by tapping their bills drill-like on trees. It’s how they stake out territories and attract mates.

“He, with his beak, examines well Which fit to stand and which to fell,” wrote Andrew Marvell. ‘Waffle’ may come from ‘yaffle’, the wood- pecker’s nickname.

Peckers are sedentary, but Scandinavian populations ‘irrupt’ occasionally in winter.
Individuals and small groups, thought to be from there, have visited Ireland intermittently since records began in the 19th century.

‘Drumming’ was heard in Co Wicklow in 2006. In July of that year, Chris Murphy
discovered a pair breeding in a Co Down garden. Theirs was the first known nest of a great-spotted woodpecker in Ireland. Two years later, at least seven pairs were breeding in Wicklow; there had been a remarkable change of heart among the woodpeckers. They had decided that Ireland was not such a bad place to breed after all.

The number of nests has grown slowly but steadily. During the Bird Atlas survey of 2007 to 2011, breeding was proved in counties Antrim, Down, Dublin, Wicklow, and Wexford. According to Dick Coombes, there were as least 39 nests in 2016. Counties Carlow and Kilkenny have since been colonised. Genetic analysis of feathers shows that our birds are of British, rather than Scandinavian, origin. Great spotteds disappeared from Scotland and the north of England in the 19th century. The colonisation of Ireland seems to be an overspill from the recovery on the other side of the Irish Sea.

The authoritative Birds of the Western Palearctic notes the bird’s “readiness to
experiment”. Great spotteds visit bird tables and avail of nest boxes when suitable tree holes aren’t available. One even nested inside a wooden telephone pole in Wicklow. Such adventurous behaviour comes at a price; according to Dick Coombes, at least 10 have been killed colliding with windows.

The bird’s entrepreneurial streak raises a question; why did such a resourceful creature not breed here until recently? Maybe some of the many Scandinavian woodpeckers who visited us have stayed on to breed?


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