You make a mistake by going out to seek Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. These birds are only ever a gift. Scan the small twigs of the canopy if you must – but never expect to see them. You’ll be disappointed. But if you go into their habitat in a spirit of serendipity, with half an ear for a ringing series of “peeps”, and half an eye for a treetop waif, then there are few more magical birds with which you can spend your birding time.
Fifteen years ago, leading a bird group, I must have got the mood right. It was March and our location was Cassiobury Park, near Watford. It was blustery and hardly ideal for birding, and there were plenty of people around. But remember – none of that mattered. Our mood was right. We were ripe to be bowled over.
Of course, we heard the Lesser Spot first. You almost always do. From the treetops came that loud peeping, like an overenthusiastic electronic alarm clock. Hearing the sound always makes the heart miss a beat. The senses sharpen. There’s the tense wait, hoping that the bird will deign to show itself.
But this time there wasn’t a wait. Almost immediately the midget came into view and settled on a large oak just above our heads. Binoculars rose in one movement, conducted by the new arrival. I had expected our bird to be a male, with the crimson cap, since only the males give the peep call. But this was a female. Nonetheless I garbled the usual instructions about the bird’s black-and-white ladder on the back, its fine streaks on the front and the lack of red at the base of the tail – standard Lesser Spotted commentary, a spoken sprint for a bird always about to dash away.
It soon became apparent, though, that this individual had things on its mind other than persecuting birders, and it clung to its vertical hold mid-oak with a certain statuesque defiance. It soon became obvious why. Within moments a second Lesser Spotted Woodpecker floated in close to the top of the tree, amidst a tangle of dead branches. The first bird didn’t flinch, but the brisk March air warmed up with the tension. What was the second bird doing? Was this a pass, perhaps? Or a trespass?
For a few moments the two birds did nothing, but then our first individual suddenly rose effortlessly to the treetops with a few fluent wing-beats. Now the woodpeckers were almost on the same level, but on opposite sides of the trunk. This looked like a challenge. From our position the stand-off didn’t look friendly, but with woodpeckers you can never tell; their displays mix aggression with lust, and the birds probably often don’t know themselves which one is their primary motivation.
What followed next was spellbinding, but also comical. Little by little, the two rivals or mates began climbing up the dead branch, on opposite sides. First one made a few upward hops, then the second did the same. They did this several times, each climb a little incremental challenge, a few hops of insult – or titillation (we still couldn‘t establish the sex of the second bird). It was obvious where this was going. In a few woodpecker quick-steps they would reach the top of the branch and meet face to face.
But High Noon had to wait, because the two Lesser Spotteds above us were suddenly interrupted. Incredibly, this was by a third Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – a year’s worth of sightings! The interloper left no doubt as to its gender. It perched prominently lower down on the main tree trunk, peeping loudly, and showing off its smart crimson crown. With the male’s theatrical arrival, the dynamic of the encounter now suddenly became obvious. The male was there to cheer-lead his mate, who was in dispute with a trespassing female. In woodpecker conflicts, territorial rights are always settled gender to gender. For whatever reason, the morning’s challenge was a feminine one.
The battle shifted to a neighbouring tree, and it now took on a higher intensity amidst the denser latticework of branches. The females, on different boughs, began making ritualised sprints towards the top of their chosen tree. They raced in this way again and again, one branch to another, for minutes on end, as if involved in some bizarre game in a reality quiz show.
But after much chasing, one leg up a limb suddenly halted. You could almost see the dust blowing off the woodpeckers’ feet. Both birds fixed their gaze towards each other and their fuses suddenly went. The two set upon each other, and, for a moment, the branches played host to a whirr of woodpeckers and it was impossible to be sure what was going on.
You rarely ever see a woodpecker fight, let alone one between two minors. But for a while we watched as the birds lost their dignity and their reticence. No feathers flew, but the birds chased wildly, several times spiralling around the trunk of our first tree, one on the other’s tail, as if out of control on a helter-skelter. These were woodpeckers unveiled, birds without an eye to the outside world, in the red mist where winning is more important than survival.
However, unsatisfying for the story, we never did find out who won. After almost an hour, both birds chased away to the other side of the canal. The male followed and, little by little, his excited peeps faded away into the no-person’s-land of the woodland canopy.
Probably the incumbent was victorious; in bird disputes, trespassing rarely produces an overthrow. But we never worked out why this single intruder was so boldly making a challenge. Was she really trying to usurp the pair from their patch, against the odds? Or more mischievously, trying to lure the male away? Intriguingly, ten percent of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker females actually hold two mates concurrently. Perhaps she was making a trunk call?
In truth, the best encounters with birds leave you not just reeling from the thrill, but puzzling for explanations. With three stars in our drama, we were always trying to interpret behaviour on the hoof, and confusion was part of the overall overwhelming experience.
I never saw a Lesser Spot at Cassiobury Park again, despite several repeat visits. And that, of course, was my mistake. After the display we had been treated to, future expectations at this same site would always have undermined the serendipity. There are some moods that you just can’t manufacture.
[First published in Bird Watching magazine]