12 February 2016

The noisy Great spotted woodpecker

Assistant Ranger, Julie talks about a master builder of tree holes within our woodlands – the Great spotted woodpecker! It certainly earns its name, for it spends nearly all of its life pecking at tree trunks. But did you know they are also housing developers, providing future homes for many woodland animals.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) perched on a bird feeder, eating peanuts, ©National Trust Images/NaturePL/Laurent Geslin

Bird feeding station, Tarn Hows

If you have visited Tarn Hows recently, you may have noticed our bird feeding station, and its myriad of visiting birds. As a child of about 8 or 9, I used to love watching the ‘back birds’ in my Nana and Grandad’s back garden, and my mum reminded me of the time I took it upon myself to buy them a coconut shell bird feeder for Christmas, using my own pocket money.  

And so, fast forward a few years, I now enjoy seeing the birds in my work back yard, at Tarn Hows, when I pass through each week.  In November, I was lucky enough to be there for the installation of new hazel hurdles for the feeding station (built by our Academy Ranger, Ted; Volunteer, Adam and Intern, Dale). 

 Installing the new hazel hurdle: Adam and myself in the foreground; and 
Ted behind hammering it into place, prior to drilling, November 2016

In the last few weeks, I arrived at work to find a note from my colleague, Ian, asking that I please top-up the feeders in his absence.  I was more than happy to do so, especially given the pleasure I have in looking out for my favourite visitor, the Great spotted woodpecker.

Woodland sounds

On my days off, I love walking through woodlands, and often stop and listen to see what I can detect around me.  On a still day, the clamour of animal life carries far, including, if you are lucky, the unmistakable drumming sound of a Great spotted woodpecker, echoing through the trees.

The best time to hear them is in spring, when the male will use his beak like a hammer to hit a branch over and over again in quick succession to mark out his territory – ‘this patch is mine!’  This is called drumming and it sounds like a machine gun echoing through the woodland.  Check out footage of the hammerblow, courtesy of the BBC, here:

I adopted a full-on stalker mode strategy a few years back in order to spot one close-up, and managed to creep slowly but surely to where the sound emanated from, and was privileged to watch the woodpecker drumming away high up in the canopy.  

Hammered home

Many birds and mammals nest, hide and take shelter in tree holes.  However, only one kind can hammer a home out of wood; only it can excavate a hollow from a solid wood trunk with its chisel-like bill, as a secure place to raise its brood – the Great Spotted Woodpecker!  It has special feet (see below) to help them grip the bark, and a stiff tail to help them keep steady as they hammer away.

woodpeckers have different feet from other birds – with two toes pointing forwards and two pointing back?   This helps them cling to tree trunks.  

Greater spotted woodpecker feeds chick at nest hole, 
©National Trust Images/NaturePL/William Osborn]
The male and female birds both work on making their nest hole high up in the tree trunk – usually at least 3 metres above the ground.  After all this hard work is finished, the female lays up to 8 shiny white eggs inside the hole in the tree.   The parents then take it in turns to sit on the eggs to keep them warm, and whoever’s not sitting on the eggs goes off to find food.   

Some weeks later the eggs hatch, and once this happens the mother and father woodpeckers have to spend all their time collecting insects for the hungry youngsters to eat.    

Finally, though, the young woodpeckers leave their hollowed-out home and fly off to make holes of their own. Check out BBC Springwatch footage here of fledging woodpeckers leaving a nesthole.

A woodland housing estate

Woodpecker holes, once abandoned, in turn provide a home for a long line of future home owners who adapt the holes to suit.  These include:  

  • Nuthatches – who narrow the hole entrance by plastering with mud.
  • Starlings – they use cavities of similar dimensions
  • Dormice – who have been discovered to use natural holes
  • Bats – summer residents of tree hollows
  • Stoats – an remarkable addition to this list, they can raise their families surprisingly high up a tree!
  • Grey squirrel - they will gnaw at the hole to enlarge it.
  • Tawny owls - who favour roomier holes (and even Barn owls if buildings are in short supply)

The Woodpecker's Incredible Tongue

The Great Spotted Woodpecker probes tree trunks for insects and larvae.  They have extremely sticky tongues enabling them to extract the insects from their nests.   

In winter months, when their insect food is scarce, their diet is supplemented by nuts and berries and they will visit garden peanut feeders.   

Good spotting sites in the South Lakes

So next time you are visiting Tarn Hows, look out for the Great spotted woodpecker at the bird feeding station.  Listen out for them in our South Lakes woodlands and if you visit Wray Castle, make sure you explore along the lakeshore.  If you’re quiet and listen out, you may hear one.  If you’re lucky, you may see one – I’ve spotted one down near the pier whilst working there.  

29 January 2016

Winter Work

This week's countryside blog comes from the Upland Ranger team based in the South Lakes area. 

When the team are working in the Fells a question we often get asked is:
"Do you work up here all year round?"
The answer to this is that we don't and this blog is about what we might be doing when we are not tackling erosion in the Fells of the Lake District.

We do spend much of the year in the Mountains and during the months between the clocks going forward an hour and until they go back again we expect to spend nearly all of our working time up in the Fells. This period is sometimes referred to as our "Fell Season".
Upland Rangers in their natural habitat during the "Fell Season"
(Taking a break before starting working on Striding Edge)

Outside of this "Fell Season", due to the shorter days and weather conditions, it isn't practical or safe for the team to stay in the Fells and we move onto work in the lower level Countryside. We call this our "Winter Work" programme (although it does include parts of Autumn and Spring too).

In general the team will help with anything that our Ranger colleagues in the South Lakes ask. There is never a shortage of lower level countryside work and we can find ourselves in high demand (it is not unheard of for our Area Rangers to "fight" for our time).

The examples below, from this years "Winter Work" programme, give an idea of some of the types of work.

We often work with rock and some dry stone walling is a common activity. There are always plenty of wall gaps to repair and we sometimes do some slightly more formal work too.  

Building a Dry Stone Retaining wall for a raised bed at Wray Castle
Another recent task, also using stone, has been some Slate-edged pathway.
A section of Slate-edged path at Wray Castle in progress

A common task in recent years for our Woodland Ranger is building tree cages to protect young trees.  This year has been no exception. 
Tree Cage under construction
(A nice winter day & a Wetherlam backdrop)

We might repair or construct countryside furniture such as gates, stiles and benches.  
Installing a new Bench at Wray Castle
(Donated by a family with connections to Wray Castle)

The finished Bench
We might also work in other areas of the National Trust where help is needed. For example the recent floods didn't affect our South Lakes area as much other parts of Cumbria and we have provided some support in other areas.
Helping clear a flood damaged fence with volunteers near Ambleside
Each year we usually help the Steam Yacht Gondola team winch Gondola out of Coniston Water and set up the frame to cover her for Winter repairs.    
Steam Yacht Gondola winched out of the water
The work we get involved in can be very varied and the examples above are a small selection based on recent months. Our team could be called on to help with any work needed in order to look after the countryside.

At this time of year we don't completely neglect our upland work and weather permitting we try to fit in some maintenance days. We also have an upland work party with the Fix the Fells Volunteer "Lengthsmen" at least once a month.
A Work Party on Browney Gill with the Fix the Fells Volunteer Lengthsmen
(A fairly grim day, we've had a few of these recently)
We also need to think about preparations for the forthcoming Fell Season and usually need to consider rock for our projects. There is seldom sufficient rock close enough to the paths we are going to work on and we may need to fill "heli-bags" so rock can be lifted to site by helicopter. This needs to be done in the early months of the year so it is ready for when we return to the fells. Carrying the heli-bags up to rock collection sites is often quite a good warm up for the main event of actually filling them.
On route to fill "heli-bags" with Rocks
(Image from 2013, we haven't started rock collection this year yet)
A bonus at this time of year, due to the shorter days, is that the light can be quite striking especially early morning or late afternoon as the sun rises or sets. A couple of recent examples are:
Sunrise along Windermere as the team started work at Wray Castle
Late afteroon light looking along Coniston Water at the end of a working day
If you would like to know more about the daily work of the South Lakes Upland Ranger team they can be found on Twitter @NTLakesFells or for more about Fix the Fells follow this link: Fix the Fells 

Posted by: Nick, Upland Ranger