The Woodpecker Network

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Lesser spotted woodpeckers – information about the birds and our project

Each spring we want as many people as possible to find Lesser Spot nests and record the breeding outcome. The aim of the Woodpecker Network citizen science project is for us all to work together to collect as much data as possible about the birds each year.

The monitoring programme for 2020 was disrupted by the covid-19 restrictions. When the restrictions were partially lifted in late May, LesserSpotNet volunteers were able to search for nests and we are pleased to say 12 nests were found in England and monitored thought o fledging. Our interim report is now available on the News page 2 July 2020.

Our Report on the 2019 breeding season was published in August 2019. In our best year ever woodpecker-network volunteers found and monitored 23 nests across 9 counties, with 12 nests found in the New Forest. This is definitely the place to go if you want to see Lesser Spots. The results of the work in 2018 and previous years are also posted on the news page (right hand column). We outline below the aims of the project and how you can get involved. The modified plans for 2020 are below

Finding breeding Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are a challenge to all our birdwatching skills. They are pretty much invisible for most of the year and only in February and March do they call and drum with any regularity. Once they have settled on a nest site by mid-April they are very inconspicuous and secretive until they are feeding young in late May.

They can be found nesting in any woodland but seem to be more abundant in well wooded areas and woods with high levels of dead wood or woods associated with wetlands. They often nest near the edges of woodland or in woodland fringes. The best bet for finding breeding birds is to check out past sites. The birds seem very site faithful so often turn up in traditional sites over many years. Drumming and displaying drops off rapidly through the day so early morning visits seem to be best.

In general, the Lesser Spot drum is much softer and for a longer duration than Great Spot and seems to tail off at the end rather than ending with a flourish. But it is still possible to be confused by a soft drumming Great Spot. With patience, you can get to see the bird to confirm identity. You can find examples of Lesser Spot calls and drumming on the xeno-canto website.

Finding the nest

The next and probably the biggest challenge is to find the nest. There are a few tricks to help you with this but there is no substitute for persistence. If you find the birds calling, drumming or displaying in an area of woodland there is a good chance they will nest in the vicinity.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nests are almost always in dead trees or dead limbs on live trees. So in March, before the leaves appear, have a thorough check around the displaying area and note any potential nest sites to be visited later. They particularly like dead alder, willow, birch, poplar, sycamore and beech but other species can be used. 

In most years all the nests found were close (within 10 metres) to a stream or pond, so this seems to be important.

Then from April onwards make regular checks of these sites looking for birds, or any signs of nest excavation such as woodchips on the ground beneath the tree. Although it won’t help you in your first year our most successful strategy is to make a point of always visiting last year’s nest site. They frequently excavate in the same tree and have even been known to re-use the nest cavity itself.

The Lesser Spot nest hole is small, about 30mm diameter, for comparison a Great Spot nest hole is 50mm and Green Woodpecker, 70mm.
[Lesser Spot just over an inch, Great Spot about 2 inches, Green nearly 3 inches in diameter].

Recording breeding success - we can help you

For most birdwatchers recording the contents of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nests is simply not possible. By using video nest inspection cameras we make this possible. However for 2020,  with the covid regulations Ken and Linda may be able to travel a short distance to help monitor a nest, but otherwise, please record the information set out below.

If you find a nest …

If you find a nest, please contact us as soon as possible so we can discuss how best to monitor it and whether it is appropriate to look inside the nest with the video nest inspection camera.

Please keep a note of the date and time of your observations, the exact location and the species of tree and if you can, the height of the nest. Please record the behaviour of the adults at the nest.
Even without the nest inspection camera it is possible to work out the stage of the nesting cycle from the behaviour of the adult birds at the nest.

  • During excavation, the bird will be seen excavating a cavity but only when it is deep inside emerging head first to throw out woodchips is the cavity anywhere near complete. Lesser Spots usually make a new cavity each year but often return to the same small area of woodland or the same dead tree if it is still standing. Birds often try an excavation but move on elsewhere before completing a cavity. This may be an important aspect of breeding so please record such failed cavities.
  • During laying and incubation the birds become very secretive and only change over every two hours or so - at this stage it is easy to assume the nest is no longer active. It is worth being patient and waiting to confirm that the nest is still active if you have the time available, or return regularly to increase the chance of detecting activity.
  • During chick rearing the young are fed every 5-10 minutes and their age can be worked out from the adult behaviour. For the first week after hatching the young are always brooded by one of the adults so there is a changeover every time the young are fed. The young are usually fed inside the cavity until their last week when they can be fed at the nest hole with the adults only going in occasionally. For their last 2-3 days in the nest the young can be quite noisy making insistent begging calls (but not always) and can often be seen looking out of the nest hole waiting to be fed.
  • Please take photographs, where appropriate, and take care not to disturb the birds.
  • We are particularly interested in the food being brought for the young, for example, caterpillars or aphids. If these can be seen in photos so much the better.

We will treat all records in complete confidence and will not publish any details of nest sites. The nest records will be treated as confidential by the BTO.

Nest inspection cameras

The loan of nest inspection cameras was suspended for 2020 due to covid-19 restrictions. The text below explains what we were able to do in previous years.

We have developed and refined the nest inspection cameras over the last 15 years and they are now very simple to use and effective. They consist of a miniature video camera (like the ones incorporated in your mobile phone) and an array of light emitting diodes built into a probe which can look through the entrance hole into the nest cavity looking down to view the contents. The video images are sent by wi-fi to an iphone or ipad where they can be viewed and recorded. Currently we use commercial units supplied by a small UK company Wildlife Windows.

The video probe is mounted atop a set of telescopic poles which allow it to look into nest cavities up to 18-20m above the ground. The whole inspection process takes a few minutes and the disturbance to the birds is so low that we have never seen any adverse impacts.

The arrangements are quite straight forward. If you find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nest, we will visit or organise a visit with a nest inspection video camera to check the contents. We have four video systems available and, depending on demand, after the first visit we can leave one with the nest finder to monitor the nest contents regularly until the young fledge.

We have developed the nest viewing cameras over the last 15 years, initially to check out Great Spotted Woodpecker nests but as the technology has improved we have been able to monitor Lesser Spots too. The nest inspection is done from the ground with the camera on a long telescopic pole which can reach up to 60 feet above the ground and only takes a few minutes. The images can be viewed and stored on an ipad or iphone. In visiting well over 1000 Great Spot and 60 Lesser Spot nests we have found no adverse impacts whatsoever on the birds.

LSWm Sussex2nest Redford 27May2017 webMale Lesser Spotted Woodpecker feeding young © Julie Redford

LSW Gloucs 9May2017 sq250Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nest with 6 eggs © Ken and Linda Smith

LSWnest NF3 30May17 Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nest with three young, two males and a female © Ken and Linda Smith

Cameraextended poles 2016 256Nest inspection camera on extended poles © L Smith

IMG 0297 Nest camera 2016 256Close-up of nest camera © L Smith

 CreviceCamera LSW 2017 web

Latest news

Long-term trends in the nest survival and productivity of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor in Britain

This new paper by Ken Smith and Linda Smith published online in the BTO journal Bird Study this week, analyses nest record data for the last 70 years and shows that Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers really are in trouble in Britain.

Ken and Linda set up Woodpecker Network in 2015 to encourage the study of Lesser Spots to try to find out why they are declining in Britain. Since then woodpecker network volunteers have found and recorded breeding outcomes from over 60 nests. This information put together with historical data from BTO nest records has enabled us to discover what is going on.

We are pleased to report that Woodpecker Network volunteers found and observed the outcomes of 12 nests this year.
This is despite the COVID 19 strict ‘lockdown being imposed on 23 March, just when everyone was poised to go out looking for breeding Lesser Spot pairs.
The lockdown was eased just in time for a few nests to be found and watched.

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