Woodpeckers wing their way back west

Outdoor Living

WELCOME RETURN This greater-spotted woodpecker was seen in the west last month. Pic: Bill Cassidy

Country sights and sounds

John Shelley

Through a lifetime of living with wildlife, through fair winds and foul, woven with peaks and furrows, waves and crests and more, I have found few things more iconic or stirring than the drumming of the woodpecker.
This, along with the tawny owl’s call and the curlew’s cry, is among the things I miss most about life on the home moors of Devon. Imagine those spring dawns, the shapes of tall trees dissolved on a foggy canvas through which the sun begins to appear. The early morning world is set ablaze, with pink and orange all around. Dew lies heavy on the grass and a long and crooked trail betrays the meandering of the ragged boy that was I.
As there was gold at the rainbow’s end or a fine day ahead when the rooks flew high, so there was opportunity in store when the woodpecker drummed in the oakwood. It seemed an invitation, like a sharp rap at the window. ‘Come on!’ We followed the messenger bird with a sense of urgency, hoping for a glimpse of that smart black and white suit, with its bright underparts and red cap.
Though just a little bigger than a blackbird he was far more grand. For one thing he was elusive, travelling ahead of us with great elastic swoops from treetop to treetop. We hunted for the woodpecker’s nest without success, and sought lost feathers on the forest floor. In doing so we came to know the other inhabitants of the land in which we lived.
Chance meetings with badger, fox and deer, with polecat, hare and stoat and every kind of creeping thing and crawling thing led us into a world from which I, at least, have not emerged. It is the woodpecker’s fault.
But why do I mention all of this? Because, after an absence of 300 years, the greater spotted woodpecker is nearly home, back in the west of Ireland, to draw a new generation of children away from the world of work and into one of quiet observation.
It seems likely that this bird was once widespread throughout Ireland, and there is every reason why this should have been the case. The entire country was well wooded until the wholesale deforestation of the 16th and 17th centuries, when Irish oak built the British fleet and later oiled the wheels of industry.
Gordon D’Arcy, in his still-splendid book ‘Ireland’s Lost Birds’ (1999), laments the loss of the ‘snag darach’, one of several Irish names put forward for the bird. In concluding his account D’Arcy says ‘The possibility of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker repopulating the increasingly available woodlands increases year after year.’
Almost before the ink was dry these birds began crossing the Irish Sea in small numbers. In 2008, a solitary specimen was recorded in the woodland at Moore Hall. Twelve years later, in 2020, another individual turned up in Cong, and in 2021 a single bird was observed on a number of occasions near Swinford.
The first Irish breeding pair were found in County Wicklow in 2009, and since then this little gem of the bird world has been recorded in many more locations and in greater numbers.
A friend put me on to Bill Cassidy, who runs the excellent ‘Ireland’s Wild Birds and Animals Group’ Facebook page.
It turns out that Bill is a keen fisherman who spends a good deal of time on the riverbank, which is just the spot to be for those interested in wildlife. While fishing the River Suck at Dunamon in County Roscommon in 2018, he heard his first Connacht woodpecker. In 2019 the bird was there again – but this time it wasn’t alone. A second bird began drumming in answer to the first just a short distance away.
That the two were a pair is uncontested. Yet it is one thing hearing them, another thing catching a glimpse, and extremely unusual to be able to provide photographic proof of their existence.
The time and patience lent by years of angling practice set Bill in good stead, and here is one of the first-ever, quality photographs of a greater spotted woodpecker this side of the Shannon, taken in 2022.
With so many bird species dwindling around us, it is good news indeed to have the occasional success story.
I find it moving to think that a new generation of young people might be drawn to explore the world around them, just as I was. It’s hard to imagine how all those years slipped by. But look.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.