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Photographing Woodpeckers

In Britain we have 3 woodpeckers, two mainly black and white and one larger and mainly green. They are known as the great spotted, the lesser spotted and green woodpeckers.

Of these the great spotted is the most photographed as it regularly visits garden feeders, liking peanuts and fat balls. The green woodpecker also visits gardens regularly eating mostly ants in lawns, but while the great spotted woodpecker will tolerate people at a distance, or even in some cases you may be able to get near to them, the green woodpecker will be off at the first site of anyone, even if its spots you looking at it out of a window.

The Green Woodpecker

The most many see of the green woodpecker is what appears to be a large yellow bird that travels very fast, and gives out a shriek. When on the ground their olive green backs give them a lot of camouflage and from a way off you won't even spot them.

They visits lawns and fields with shortish grass looking for ants. They peck a hole in the ground at speed and use a long sticky tongue to catch the ants. Having pecked rapidly at the ground a number of times it sits back looks around, looks up and around looking out from predators, and in particular birds of prey.

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To photograph it you need to have a good hiding place with no lights behind you, often indoors and to only move when it has its head in the ground. If it spots you, its off, its difficult to get them accustomed to you taking photographs in the way you can with many birds as its does not stay long enough to allow you to make any progress.  Having said this I have several thousand photos of green woodpeckers, including some of the adult feeding the young and others of the adult and young feeding together, all of these I took from in a house through windows. At least one young one I did get eventually to tolerate me photographing it and on one occasion one even came up closer to see what I was doing.

Although they have very long tongues you don't normally catch them in photographs, I have only managed to catch one with its tongue out on two occasions, one far clearer than the other.

The males and females are very similar in appearance, but the male has a red marking in the black strip coming from the mouth. This can be difficult to see. The young are distinctly different with a motley pattern.

As they don't visits garden feeders or eat any food that you can put out for them, the only thing that you can do to encourage them to visit your lawn is not to kill all the ants nests. If you are looking for another location that may have green woodpeckers visiting, look for a location that has a lot of deciduous, broad leaf trees nearby and a place where there are ants nests in short grass. If you can, find a natural hiding place or use a hide, and have the patience you may be lucky. While a car is enough of a hide to look at many birds, the green woodpecker will take flight or rarely go near cars unless its been stood in the same place with no sign of people for some time.

When young are first seen they are on tress or bushes following and watching the adults, and the adults then go back to feed them. A little later the young come out of the tress near to the adult and follow them around, however often the adult will take flight and the young bird will just stay very still on the ground, waiting for the adult to return. If you are looking, on returning the adult will feed the young bird, and you may gat a chance to photograph them together. A little later the young also learns to feed on ants and you can see then the adult and young feeding together.

See,  species' page on the Green Woodpecker and the Green Woodpecker Gallery.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

This is a smaller woodpecker that is far more rare and seldom photographed, its spends most if its time in the top of trees and rarely, if ever, visits gardens. It is much smaller than the great spotted and has white stripes instead of a large white spot on the top part of its wings.

Those who have managed to photograph it have either done so at a distance, finding it by listening for its hammering in the early spring, before there are too many leaves on trees to see it, or have put hides near to places where it will come down for water, so for example where there is a piece of woodland that they are known to be in and a single small pond in the woodland. Although I have seen lesser spotted woodpeckers on a few occasions I have not so far photographed one.

See,  species' page on the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Great spotted woodpecker

The most common and most photographed of the UK woodpeckers. It will tolerate people once it becomes used to you, and will even feed its young close to you knowing you are present. It is particularly keen on peanuts and fat feeders, so is a frequent visitor to many country bird tables and even some in towns and cities.

They usually first fly to a tree nearby where they can check the area is safe before coming to the feeder. Where there are a number, usually as one flies in the one already present will fly out, so except for a parents and a young it is rare to see more than one at a time on feeders. When flying from the nearby tree to the feeders they fly looking forward, and I have a couple of photographs of them flying directly towards the camera. However I don't think their eye sight in flight is all that good as on one occasion one landed on my arm while I was tying up a peanut feeder so that squirrels could not remove it. I was however wearing a green shirt on this occasion. It was as surprised as I was to find itself inches from my face.

The adult male has a red back to its neck while the adult female does not. The young has a red cap. In most cases where I have seen one of the young being fed at or near a bird feeder, its been the male adult that has been doing it.

When I had a couple of feeding stations and Greet Spotted Woodpeckers were coming in all the time, I found I could tell one from another, in some cases by size, in other cases by shape, some being plumper than others and on occasions as some had extra feathers around their chin areas. Similarly there are differences between younger ones as well.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

In many books it says that they do not eat ants or feed on the ground but I have seen and photographed them doing this, although its far less common than with the green woodpecker.

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker Feeding on the Ground

When feeding they are always stopping to check for predators, especially birds of prey, often working their way around feeders or branches looking to the sky. Although they have a powerful peck and few other birds even far larger ones will challenge them. I have seen one taken by a bird of prey, and know of another case where it fought back and made so much noise that it caused a lot of interest, bringing people out to see what was happening and causing the bird of prey to drop it and fly away.

The easiest way to photograph them is near or at feeders. Quite a few of my favourite photos of Great Spotted Woodpeckers are with them on a small wooden post, that I tied to the feeding station, giving them something to land on near the feeders. While initially on seeing you they will fly away, after a short time they become accustomed to you and you will find that you can get near to an open window, being in full view and moving about,  or even stand outside near the feeders, as long as you stand still. Like many of the other garden and game birds that became used to attending our feeding stations, I found they were happier to come near me when I was in normal clothes, and were in open display, either inside or outside, than when I was in either camouflage or partially hidden.



Male Feeding Young Woodpecker

See,  species' page on the Great Spotted Woodpecker and the Great Spotted Woodpecker.


By:  Keith Park Section: Birds Key:
Page Ref: Woodpecker_photos Topic: Wildlife & Animals Last Updated: 05/2009

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