Tree Huggers

An extract from the FOAF Newsletter, March 2021 (Valerie Whiteman)

Winter brings the Redwings and Fieldfares to the Abbey Fields, but also it is a good time, as we approach spring, to see and hear year-round residents. There are several bird species which use powerful claws to hang on to tree trunks, and it’s easier to see them in early spring, when there are no leaves on the trees. In early February, the Nuthatch begins to make calls, like someone doing a poor imitation of a bird, “twit, twit, twit”. If you see them on bird tables, you know that as soon as one arrives, all other birds leave. They are most definitely dominant, not to say bullies. They are most attractive with an orange breast and a black bandit stripe through the eye. They spend most time moving up and down the trunks of trees; sometimes you see them in what the bird books describe as an ‘acrobatic pose’, bending out from the trunk with their beaks slightly up. Occasionally you hear them pounding the nuts they have wedged in cracks in tree trunks or branches: a sound like a mini woodpecker. If you look at nest boxes around Abbey Fields, occasionally you see ones that have the holes partially blocked with mud.

The occupants are the Nuthatches, who like a small and safe entry hole. Although they can be bullies, they are such lovely birds to watch as they move up and down the trunks, apparently defying gravity.

My favourite bird in the Abbey Fields by far is the Treecreeper. They appear unexpectedly, like small mice scuttling up and down the trunks of the trees. They have the most beautiful mottled cream, black and brown back with a white front. They tend to fly to the base of a tree, move quietly and quickly upwards before flying to another tree and repeating the process. They eat insects with their fine curving bill. Their call, unlike that of the Nuthatch, is very quiet and unobtrusive. You may have seen their nest on Springwatch: it is built behind loose bark and looks precarious. The young huddle together in a mottled diamond shape on the tree. They are wonderfully camouflaged, but you may spot them foraging up the trunks of trees quite close to the paths. They used to nest in the tree by the swimming pool, just over the bridge, but Jackdaws now nest there, and the Treecreepers have gone.

Of the three woodpecker species, we have two in Abbey Fields and surroundings, as far as I know. I’d be interested to know whether anyone has seen the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It is relatively tiny and is found higher up in trees than the Greater Spotted. There are some at Coombe Abbey, so there may be some with us too. Males have the distinctive red crown, like the Greater Spotted.

You can hear the Greater Spotted Woodpecker drumming in the Fields in the spring, and can often see it near one of the trees by the stream. There are two or three – on the Fields or around them – drumming from high up in a tree. Although woodpeckers drum to extract grubs from the trees, in spring they are also drumming to establish a territory and attract a mate. Both males and females drum; one in Abbey Fields last year used to drum on dead wood which had a distinct and echoey sound.

Woodpeckers’ skulls prevent them from concussing themselves. They also have a specially adapted hyoid bone in their tongue which wraps around their skull and anchors about their right nostril, acting like a safety belt. The skull bone itself is specially adapted, and they close their eyes on impact with the tree so their eyeballs don’t pop out. Isn’t nature wonderful?

The Green Woodpecker is relatively common but not often seen in the Fields. It usually feeds on the ground, on ants’ nests. You can hear its call from the countryside around the Abbey Fields, though it rarely drums. It’s the bird that ‘laughs at you’ as you go through woods, and around here it’s also called the Yaffle. It’s large, has a green back and the male has a red crown like the spotted woodpeckers. Spring is a good time to hear and see these tree hugging birds before they get into the business of nest building in holes in trees, and, in the case of woodpeckers, stop drumming.

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