Over the last five years woodland on Ireland’s east coast has started to reverberate with the drumming of a very welcome blow-in. This feature documenting that recolonisation was first published in the October 2013 edition of Bird Watching magazine in the UK.
Ireland is home to some truly fantastic wildlife and offers some outstanding birding opportunities. But for all of its undoubted birding charms, one thing visiting UK birders are often surprised by are the obvious absentees.
There are more than 450 bird species on the official Irish list, but being isolated for more than 8,000 years has its drawbacks. The island gets plenty of passing visitors each spring and autumn, is an important wintering ground for waders and wildfowl, and is the first point of “landfall” for many an American vagrant, but when it comes to breeding birds Ireland falls some way short of its nearest European neighbours.
You wouldn’t think a narrow strip of water like the Irish sea could present much of a barrier to birds, but relatively sedentary species like the tawny owl, willow tit, marsh tit, nuthatch and others are notably absent. Perhaps the most curious gap in Ireland’s avifauna though, until recently at least, was the complete absence of woodpeckers.
Woodpeckers are well represented across continental Europe, but even the most widespread and cosmopolitan species, the practically ubiquitous great spotted woodpecker, was only ever recorded as a rare winter visitor to Ireland, with solitary birds turning up from Scandinavia and Northern Europe during documented “irruption” years, and then usually in small numbers.
There is some evidence that great spotted woodpeckers were once a native breeding species in Ireland — most notably the femurs of two birds recovered from an excavation of the Edenvale cave complex near Ennis in Co. Clare in the early 1900s. These were subsequently carbon dated back to the Bronze Age. Details of when exactly Ireland lost its woodpeckers are shrouded in the mists of history, but most experts concur that their extinction here is most likely to coincide with the widespread deforestation of the island during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Great spotted woodpeckers… an Irish rarity
To give you an idea of just how unusual it was to see a great spotted woodpecker in Ireland let’s take a look at the sighing records over the last few decades.
In the 15 years between 1989 and 2004 there were only three confirmed reports of great spotted woodpeckers on the island of Ireland. The following three years saw a change in that pattern, with three records in 2005, six in 2006 and a further four in 2007.
All bar one of the historic Irish records occurred between September and April, with the majority falling between November and February. But from 2005 onwards there seemed to be a shift in that trend, with birds turning up earlier in the year.
A young red-crowned bird seen in a Co. Wicklow garden on Ireland’s east coast in September 2005 sparked debate in the Irish birding community. Could this be a locally bred bird, or just an early dispersal from Britain or the continent? There was no way to know for sure.
In 2006 rumours began to circulate that a pair of great spotted woodpeckers had reared young successfully in Northern Ireland, then in early June 2007 a bird was heard calling in prime mixed-woodland habitat in Co. Wicklow. A pattern started to emerge, a pattern that hinted at the tantalising prospect of great spotted woodpeckers naturally re-colonising Ireland.
2008 turned out to be a pivotal year in the story of Irish woodpeckers. Several reports of drumming birds in early spring were a sign of things to come. Then Dick Coombes, coordinator of the Countryside Bird Survey with BirdWatch Ireland (the Irish Bird Life International partner) and a member on the Irish Rare Birds Committee (IRBC), found a pair of great spotted woodpeckers engaged in classic courtship behaviour in a Wicklow woodland. He subsequently lost track of them, but during the course of that year there were no fewer than 20 woodpecker sightings involving at least 23 birds. Significantly 14 of those records were reported between April and August, during the great spotted woodpecker breeding season.
The push to find breeding proof
The real excitement came in July of 2008, when a red-crowned juvenile great spotted woodpecker turned up at a bird feeder in a County Wicklow garden. Speculation was rife as to the origin of this young bird. A general consensus emerged: surely it was too early in the year, and the bird too young, for this to be an overseas interloper.
Could this be the first ever record of an Irish-bred woodpecker? Dick Coombes’s first thought was that he simply had to see the bird for himself.
“We get so many outlandish claims at BirdWatch HQ,” said Dick. “Even when I did see the bird I was hyper cautious because it was late July and there was an outside chance it was an early bird out of Scandinavia – perhaps a forerunner of an irruption.”
The initial sighting was followed by reports of another three juveniles in County Wicklow, and one from adjacent Co. Dublin. Autumn / winter 2008 failed to produce typical irruption-style woodpecker sightings in Ireland, and bird observatories along Britain’s east coast reported no sign of woodpecker movement there. Everything pointed towards these 2008 juveniles being Irish bred birds, but the crucial unequivocal proof was still missing.
Dick Coombes was determined to find that proof. He galvanised a team of like-minded volunteers to scour Wicklow’s woodlands for signs of breeding woodpeckers during the 2009 season.
“The team is very much an ad hoc group of birders smitten by woodpeckers. They are good in the field, have a good ear, patience and stamina, and can be trusted to be discreet about nest sites,” said Dick. “I kind of assumed the role of coordinator, as in addition to finding my own nests, I make a point of getting to all nests found and make repeat visits as much as possible to gauge success.”
Surveying great spotted woodpeckers in Irish woodland is an activity well and truly in its infancy. Although they were all experienced birders the “woodpecker team” was on a steep learning curve as they tried to pin down the birds.
You might think a blackbird-sized bird with striking black and white plumage, liberally daubed with scarlet, would be easy to see, but great spotted woodpeckers are notoriously elusive. Often solitary, they tend to favour higher branches in the forest canopy, and have an irritating knack for sitting motionless on the far side of a branch, just out of sight. They can also be frustratingly silent when they’re not drumming, making them tricky to locate, especially when you’re searching for a relatively small pool of birds across a large expanse of woodland.
Drumming then was the obvious starting point, and that’s where the team focussed its initial efforts. They soon found drumming birds, but confirming established pairs and occupied nest holes proved a much trickier business.
Gradually long, often fruitless hours in the woods began to pay off, more drummers were located, sexes established and pairs confirmed. As spring progressed the scenario began to repeat itself up and down County Wicklow. It soon became clear that the scale of this woodpecker colonisation was much larger than anyone had realised.
But that elusive proof of breeding was still missing.
The breakthrough finally came on the 2nd of May 2009, when the first nest hole was found… and a birds head peeked out of the opening, showing it was occupied. The newly excavated nest was about a metre below an old nest hole… evidence perhaps that the birds had bred in the same tree before. The team found a second occupied nest the following day, and by the 24th of May 2009 had confirmed seven occupied nests in total.
Great spotted woodpeckers are now well and truly established in Wicklow, with the number of confirmed occupied nests growing year on year from the initial seven in 2009 to twenty five in 2013. The true extent of the budding Irish population is probably significantly larger.
“In each of the last few years, you need to add five to ten cases of proved breeding at other sites, like juveniles or birds carrying food,” explained Dick. “On top of that we would know of at least fifteen to twenty sites where birds were present but breeding was not proved, mainly due to time constraints. It’s not difficult to imagine that the Republic of Ireland population could be in the order of 50 to 75 pairs now.”
Where did they come from?
One of the burning questions the woodpecker team had once they’d successfully established breeding was the origin of this new Irish population. Where had these birds come from, and what had triggered this range expansion into Ireland?
Britain, of course, was the obvious candidate — but there was also the possibility that Irish birds had originated from northern European populations, arriving during irruption years and staying on to breed. To find out the team secured funding from The Heritage Council, and and turned to geneticists at University College Dublin for help (McDevitt et al, “The origins of Great Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos major colonizing Ireland revealed by mitochondrial DNA”, Bird Study). Using shed feathers from vacated nest holes the scientists compared the DNA of the new Irish population with established populations in Britain and on the continent.
The study confirmed that the Irish colonists are almost certainly of British rather than continental origin. It also suggests that the Irish population is derived from more than one location in Britain, which bodes well for its genetic diversity.
In Britain the great spotted woodpecker has seen a dramatic increase in its population over the last forty years — with growth of around 400%. Despite their inherent reluctance to travel, sheer pressure of numbers may well have forced young British woodpeckers on the West coast to make the relatively short hop across the Irish sea in search of new breeding territories.
Looking to the future
While great spotted woodpeckers are habitually a sedentary species, they are spreading slowly from their Wicklow stronghold. Last year a nest was confirmed in County Wexford and another in County Kilkenny. Juveniles were seen in County Louth last year and at least one other year, there is suspected breeding at several locations in counties Dublin and Meath, and other unconfirmed reports from counties Offaly and Roscommon.
“While the increase in 5 years has been slow enough, it has been steady,” said Dick. “There appear to be plenty of woodland invertebrates to sustain adults and hungry young in the nest. Great spotted woodpeckers are adaptable to a range of habitats and there are now dozens of documented cases of birds taking supplementary food in gardens. So I think while the stronghold may well remain in Wicklow they should be in all counties in ten years, with a big bias in eastern and southern counties.”
It’s still very early days for Ireland’s woodpeckers. Compared to Britain great spotted woodpeckers are still very scarce, even in their Wicklow stronghold. But all of the evidence suggests they are building on a strong foundation, and that given time, and a little luck, the sound of this versatile and adaptable woodpecker’s drumming will eventually be heard throughout the country.
A Numbers Game:
Great Spotted Woodpeckers in Ireland
|No of Nests||Year|