New Forest Lesser Spotted Woodpecker survey

Guest Blog by Rob Clements:


The seemingly never-ending sequence of storms and heavy rain has now been replaced by a period of more settled weather - an ideal time to look for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (LSW) in the New Forest. For the past six years my LSW survey work in the New Forest has had two main aims:


· Mapping LSW territories within chosen study areas, to establish breeding densities in different habitat


· Locating LSW nest-sites in conjunction with Ken and Linda Smith, who operate a nest examination scheme using an endoscopic camera, which provides valuable data on nesting dates and breeding success


Survey work starts in February and continues until early June. Volunteers who wish to get involved should contact me at richard.clements3@virgin.net. Anyone fortunate enough to find an active LSW nest either in the New Forest or elsewhere in Hampshire should contact Ken and Linda Smith at www.woodpecker-network.org.uk


Male LSW bringing food to the nest (Photo by Marcus Ward, WNF)


A bit more information about LSW in the New Forest is provided below:


Over the past fifty years the LSW has undergone a transformation from a widespread and unremarked species to the rare and sought-after bird of today. The most recent published estimate suggests that the UK population is down to 600-1000 pairs, although there is some doubt about this figure. We are fortunate that Hampshire probably still retains the largest county population in Britain, estimated at around 250 pairs, and that the main stronghold for the species, the New Forest, holds a stable breeding population.


We know little of population levels for LSW in the more distant past, although there was a suggestion that they were more numerous than Great Spotted Woodpeckers in Hampshire around 1900. Birds of Hampshire, published in 1993, suggested a county population of around 700 pairs. The latest Hampshire Atlas shows a contraction in range from 328 to 150 tetrads, with most of the losses occurring on higher ground outside the New Forest. Currently, most records come from the New Forest and surrounding woodlands, but there are regular records from the Test Valley and other river valleys and associated woodlands in the south and east of the county.


LSWs range widely in winter and are sometimes found in loose contact with flocks of tits and other birds as they move through the tree-tops. By late February, LSW are spending more time as pairs, and sightings will concentrate around certain areas within the territory. The male may frequently visit favoured ‘drumming trees’ where he will spend long periods drumming from dead branches in the crown. Often, the female will join him and may be found calling or drumming in an adjacent tree. The pair can occasionally be seen displaying and chasing each other through the upper branches, with persistent calling and strange butterfly-like flitting between trees. By early March, nest construction may be under way, with the male excavating a chamber in dead wood, most frequently in a dead tree, but sometimes in a dead branch in a live tree. Typical nest locations are in Alder and Birch, often along a stream, with the nest hole 3-6m above ground. However, nests can be more than 20m up, and other tree species such as Beech, Ash and Oak are utilised. Recently, I have found nests in dead Holly trees; it may be that such sites are more regularly used with so much dead Holly now present in the Forest.


Around late April, as the trees come fully into leaf, LSW calling and drumming activity tails off. The female lays her eggs around this time and incubation starts. Some LSW nests are enlarged by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, leading to desertion by their smaller cousins. Nests that have escaped predation can be located in late May/early June by systematic searching of LSW territories. The near-fledged juveniles often keep up continual food-begging calls from their nest-hole, which may be heard from some distance away in calm weather. A stealthy approach and watching from around 20 m away will enable views of the adults bringing food to the nest. At some nests, both male and female are engaged in food provision, but at others the male is the sole provider. Research has shown that a proportion of females desert the nest early on and attempt to breed with another male; the abandoned male is usually able to find enough food to allow successful fledging. However, a shortage of insect food, especially in areas away from the New Forest, may be leading to reduced breeding success and the consequent reduction in range and numbers.


Female LSW bringing food to the nest (Photo by Marcus Ward, WNF)


After fledging, the young LSW may be fed by adults for a few days in the vicinity of the nest, but they soon disperse. Occasionally, I find a family group in August/September calling together along a stream or other food source, but in general LSW are very hard to find in late summer.


While drumming and calling, LSW can be encountered in January and February, especially in calm, settled weather - peak activity then occurs during March and the first half of April. In late April, as the trees come into full leaf, activity tails off. The first hour after sunrise is always a period of intense activity with drumming and calling in almost any weather conditions. During the rest of the morning until around midday there will be intermittent bursts of drumming/calling activity, but unless conditions are perfect with warm sunshine and light winds the afternoon is often devoid of activity. LSW may become more active and vocal again in late afternoon.


LSW searchers should familiarise themselves with the call - a high-pitched “kee-kee-kee” that carries a long way on a calm morning. Similarly, LSW drumming is easily recognisable, a longer, softer drum that may be repeated with short intervals over a period of several minutes. Observers unfamiliar with LSW often worry that they won’t be able to tell their drumming from that of Great Spotted Woodpecker, but in reality, the tone and duration of LSW drumming is so different that it should be easily recognised. When a calling or drumming bird is located, a quiet and stealthy approach may enable good views, although most LSW will be in the top-most branches of very tall trees. In calm conditions, I often locate LSW by listening for their continual tapping as they forage among the high branches. With experience, the noise is easily distinguishable from that made by Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

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