The joy of spotting a rare visitor at the feeder

EXCITING news from a neighbour — he phoned to describe an unusual bird on his peanut feeder.

I thought I knew what it was, but before I found the time to get over there I got another call. He’d managed to photograph it through the window.

It wasn’t a great picture, but it confirmed my identification. It was a greater spotted woodpecker, an adult female. These birds started to recolonise Ireland two or three years ago, having been extinct for at least two centuries. I wrote an article about it on this page, last year. The first reports were from Wicklow, then more followed from other counties, in the east and north, including visits to peanut feeders in suburban gardens in south Dublin.

My neighbour — he’s a “country neighbour” because he lives five kilometres away — has a garden just outside Donadea Forest Park, in Co Kildare. This is a mature woodland of mixed deciduous and coniferous trees — ideal woodpecker habitat. Hopefully, there’s a male around as well and they’ll find a dead tree in which they can hollow out a nesting chamber and rear a new generation of Irish woodpeckers.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on my own peanut feeders, but, so far, there’s been no sign of a black, white and red woodpecker. There are more siskins than usual, and they are one of my favourite small birds. Usually, the siskins arrive at the beginning of winter, in mixed flocks of other finches, such as goldfinches, linnets and redpolls. By this time of year, the flocks have broken up and no longer visit the bird table.

But this winter they arrived late — in February — and they are still around, along with the linnets, in April. Siskins have also successfully colonised Ireland in recent times. Up until 120 years ago, they were rather rare winter visitors. Then a few started to breed — and then more.

Their arrival coincided with the beginning of the development of extensive plantations of conifers, and siskins like conifers, particularly mature ones. The last census of Irish breeding birds gave an estimate of 60,000 breeding pairs in the country, but this figure is out of date and the true figure is certainly much higher.

For about their first 100 years as breeding birds in this country, siskins stuck to the plantations, and, because they spent most of the time high up in the dense canopy, they were seldom seen. But 20 years ago they started to leave plantations and colonise the open countryside, penetrating as far as suburbia, where they discovered bird tables.

The males have more spectacular plumage, yellowish green with a black cap and chin and a yellow rump. There are also yellow bars on the wings and the side of the tail. The female is a duller version of the male, without the black cap and chin.

They are extremely energetic, dynamic birds that never seem to rest. They show the fact that they evolved in the forest canopy by their acrobatic agility and they can be quite noisy. The almost continuous, high-pitched ‘chattering’ is another adaptation to life among the densely packed evergreen needles. It helps them keep in contact with each other, even when they can’t be seen.

There is, naturally, a lot of attention paid to our extinct and endangered species — birds like corn buntings, twites, corncrakes and barn owls. But it’s a process of give and take. Siskins have colonised successfully and it looks as though the greater spotted woodpecker is doing the same thing.



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