Overseas visitor the woodpecker a welcome guest

SIGHTINGS of the great spotted woodpecker were once rare in Ireland. However, there’s now clear evidence that the bird is not only breeding here, but is spreading around the country from its original base in the east coast.

Scientific studies at UCD have confirmed that the birds almost certainly came across the Irish Sea from Britain where the woodpecker population has increased by around 400% in the past 40 years. The bird is known to be travel-shy, but pressure of numbers may well have forced young British woodpeckers to fly here in search of breeding territories.

In an age when many species are struggling to survive, this is a positive nature story. Groups such as BirdWatch Ireland are enthusiastic about helping the newcomer, which is about the size of a blackbird.

Coillte is supporting the woodpecker’s habitat through its biodiversity programme. A key part of Coillte’s efforts is the recognition of deadwood as an important component of forests and that woodpeckers need standing dead trees in which to build their nests.

The forestry company aims to build up deadwood, which supports a variety of life, until there is an average of three standing and three fallen dead stems per hectare across all its forests. Coillte has also been working with Birdwatch Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and others in recent years to identify the numbers and locations of woodpeckers in their forests to protect them.

According to Coillte senior ecologist Dr Aileen O’Sullivan, the woodpecker is starting to naturalise itself here. “This is very exciting. We don’t have rich biodiversity in Ireland, compared to other European countries, and the new arrival will be of significant benefit to nature and the ecology,’’ she said.

It seems sightings began to increase here after 2005. There had been rumours a pair reared young in Northern Ireland, in 2006, and a bird was heard calling in Co Wicklow woodland, in June 2007. But, 2008 was a landmark year, with several reports of a ‘drumming’ woodpecker in early spring — a sign of things to come. In July 2008, a young woodpecker was seen at a bird feeder in Co Wicklow, and, throughout the year, 20 sightings were recorded of at least 23 birds.

The up-to-date story is that woodpeckers are now well established in Wicklow which had 25 nests, in 2013. There are probably many more nests in other parts of the country. The woodpecker can be elusive and difficult to spot. A beautiful bird with black and white plumage, dappled in scarlet, it can be solitary and likes the higher tree branches.

Surveying great spotted woodpeckers in Irish woodland is in its infancy, BirdWatch Ireland reports. But a patient, dedicated team of watchers is learning steadily.


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