Thursday, 19 September 2019

Woodpeckers Of Europe - ID Guide

I have always found Woodpeckers fascinating with their gaudy plumage and yet often secretive behaviour. In fact the Great Spotted Woodpecker visiting my garden feeders was the first bird I properly looked at and it reignited my passion for birds as a teenager. Ever since I always take the time to watch these characters of the woodland and as I started to go birding abroad I began a quest to see every species that breeds in Europe which earlier this year I completed! Finally tracking down a Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker in the remote forests of the Lithuanian/Belarus border. To mark this occasion I have written a short piece about each species with some I.D features that I hope will help people find and enjoy them as I have done.

Three-toed Woodpecker Courtesy of Armandas Naudzius

Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus Canus) is found in ancient deciduous forest, mature parkland and even visits urban gardens in Eastern Europe. Although it shares the olive-green upperparts and yellow rump with the Green Woodpecker there are several features which make it straightforward to separate the two species. Grey-headed Woodpecker has a uniform grey coloration to it’s face which spreads around the ear coverts, it also has an unstreaked grey coloured breast which extends to the undertail coverts. The face pattern of Grey-headed Woodpecker is also diagnostic. Their thin black triangular shaped lores above the bill and thin black malar stripe below the bill make the head look rather plain at a distance. Males can be sexed due to the presence of a red crown (less extensive than on Green Woodpecker) which the female lacks. You may also notice the smaller size in comparison with Green Woodpecker and the very distinctive ( call which descends in pitch and slows down at the end. 

Male Grey-headed Woodpecker above and below. Note the grey head and belly which extends down to the undertail coverts. The red on the crown is limited and extends to just above the eye, together with the thin black malar stripe this creates a distinctive appearance.

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) - This large bulky Woodpecker can share the same habitat as the Grey-headed Woodpecker but is also more likely to be seen foraging on the ground in short grass or gravel forest tracks looking for ants. Adults of both sexes always show a large red crown and black face mask which surrounds the eye. Sexes can be separated by the colour of the malar stripe which is mostly red on a male and black on a female. The malar stripe is also much thicker and more prominent when compared to Grey-headed and the bill see is much thicker and more powerful looking. Also the call of Green Woodpecker doesn’t have the descending ending or the rather mournful quality of a Grey-headed, it has a shreaker more repetitive tone and sounds a bit like an annoying laugh!

Male Green Woodpecker (below) and Female (above). Not the prominent black triangle around the eye, thick black malar stripe and extensive red on the forecrown extending to the nape.

Iberian Woodpecker (Picus Sharpei)This relatively new species (recently split from nominate Green Woodpecker) is endemic to Spain, Portugal and the far south of France where it’s range overlaps with Green Woodpecker. It can be found in a variety of habitats with my best views coming from birds on golf courses around the Algarve and in mixed woodland in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  The head pattern is the main feature in separating the species from Green Woodpecker as the Iberian shows at best a ‘washed out’ face mask on a male and typically greyish head on a female. The male shows a red malar stripe with much less conspicuous dark border whilst the female has an all dark malar stripe. If you hear a Green Woodpecker type call in Iberia then you have yourself an Iberian Woodpecker as the Green is absent from this area ( ) When you see the bird it is more reminiscent of a Grey-headed Woodpecker which breeds much further north in Europe and shares a face pattern similar to Levaillants Woodpecker which breeds in North Africa.

Iberian Woodpecker: male (below female (above). Note the grey cast to the head on both sexes and the lack of a black face mask. The red crown stripe is more restricted than on Green Woodpecker and the red malar stripe on the male lacks the clear cut black border of Green Woodpecker.

White-backed Woodpecker  (Dendrocopos leucotos) – The largest of the European pied woodpeckers needs carefully managed intact deciduous or mixed forest with plentiful dead or dying wood in which to forage for wood boring beetle species. Thus sadly in most areas it is declining in numbers as suitable habitat disappears. They do have quite a large range throughout central and eastern Europe with relict populations in Northern Spain and Scandinavia. As the name suggests it does have more white on it’s back than the other pied woodpeckers with a white lower back and extensive barring from the wing coverts. In most views you may not initially see the back at all but there are several other features which can distinguish White-backed from other pied woodpeckers. Firstly to my eye it is obviously larger and longer in the body to Great Spotted Woodpecker. The first plumage feature I noted was the pencil line streaking on the flanks (shared with the smaller Middle Spotted Woodpecker). The face pattern was also noticeably different and intermediate between Middle Spotted and Great Spotted in that it shows more white on the face than Great Spotted Woodpecker but lacks the plain faced appearance of Middle Spotted Woodpecker as it still has a thin dark moustachial stripe. Sexes can be separated by the fact that males have a red crown which females lack.  

White-backed Woodpecker- note the pencil line streaking on the underparts, the white back with diffuse horizontal ladder like streaking on the upperparts and the thin malar stripe below the bill. Calls of White-backed Woodpecker: 

White-backed Woodpecker excavating nest hole

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus Major)- The generic pied woodpecker must surely be the most common member of it’s family throughout most of it’s range. It is widespread throughout suburban areas , parks , woodland and forests. So the odds are that when you are looking for scarcer pied woodpecker species the Great Spotted will be nearby which makes it important to know this species well. Great Spotted Woodpecker shows a plain; unstreaked breast and on the closed wing shows conspicuous white ovals on the wing coverts with white barring on the flight feathers below this. The face pattern shows a clear difference to the very similar Syrian Woodpecker (which can be found in Eastern Europe also) as the black malar stripe (line below its bill) links up with a thin black line reaching the red crown on it’s head. Syrian Woodpecker lacks this black line (which encloses the white cheeks of a Great Spotted) giving it much whiter looking cheeks and neck.The colour of the undertail coverts is also much more vivid red than Syrian, Middle Spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers.uvenile birds show much more red in the crown than adult birds which could be a potential ID pitfall when searching for other pied woodpeckers. Size alone will rule out Lesser Spotted whilst Middle Spotted has a much plainer face pattern (owing to pale lores and no black malar stripe.) and streaking to the belly. Males and females can easily be separated in a good view as the male shows a red nape (back of head) patch which the female lacks.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker. Note distinct white ovals on closed wing, red undertail coverts, prominent black malar stripe, white cheeks enclosed in a black outline and unstreaked breast.

Syrian Woodpecker (Dendrocopos syriacus)- This rapid coloniser from the east now has a strong foothold in Eastern Europe and overlaps in range with the very similar Great Spotted Woodpecker. I saw my first in Israel (where it is the only occurring Woodpecker species and was common) and also in Turkey. Like the Great Spotted Woodpecker the Syrian can be found in urban environments and also parkland and smaller copses and orchards. It is very similar to Great Spotted Woodpecker but shows whiter cheeks, washed out red vent and paler lores. If you think you have a Syrian listen out for it’s call it is pretty distinctive and sounds like a squeeky toy. (Call of Great Spotted call of Syrian Woodpecker- Sexes can be separated in the same way as Great-Spotted with the male having a red nape which the female lacks.

Male Syrian Woodpecker: When compared to Great Spotted Woodpecker undertail coverts are pinkish rather than red, white cheeks lack black post-auricular stripe and on the closed wing fewer but larger white splodges are present. The red malar patch indicates this is a male (which is larger and more conspicous on Syrian Woodpecker).

Juvenile Syrian Woodpecker could easily be mistaken for other species but note that the head pattern is still the same as an adult.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius)- This charming woodpecker occurs across mainland Europe and from my experience is suited to many different tree habitats probably because they glean their prey from the surface and do not bore deep into bark (so they aren’t so dependant on unspoilt ancient woodland).  I have watched them in city parks in Berlin and Vilnius, ancient forests in Lithuania, mature mixed deciduous woods in central France and olive groves and orchards in Turkey. With a good view this woodpecker is very different from it’s other pied cousins. Both sexes show a red crown (similar to perhaps juvenile Great Spotted) and also have a strikingly pale face with white cheeks and pale grey lores which give an open faced look about them. The upperparts are a similar in pattern to Great-Spotted but the underparts show more obvious streaking than that species and the vent of Middle Spotted Woodpecker has a distinctive pink flush and isn’t as vivid in colour as Great Spotted Woodpecker. Structurally it is rather petite with a weak bill and smallish size when compared to Great Spotted, Syrian and White-backed Woodpeckers (it is still obviously larger than Lesser Spotted). Vocally I think the calls of Middle Spotted Woodpecker are the easiest to separate when you are in the forest with several other species occurring. I have picked up on a Meeowing KYaa! Type call and also a longer excitable ‘kick’ call which is repeated several times in quick succession (reminiscent of a Falcon) . The sexes are difficult to separate without good views or photographs. The crown of the male stays red in colour through to the back of the head whilst the crown of the female’s is more diffuse at the rear and often shows a brownish/yellowish tinge. 

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – This male shows the 3 main I.D features of pale lores creating an open faced look , bright red crown and washed out pinkish vent.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker  Dryobates minor)- Europe’s smallest Woodpecker is still a widespread resident but is sadly declining through much of it’s range particularly in Britain. They can be found in a range of different habitats from deciduous forests to orchards and parkland but from my experience they tend to need dead or decaying wood and I have seen them nesting in mature Alder tree’s in France and Lithuania. If searching for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in Britain it isn’t a bad idea to look along river banks and wet woodland. Owing to their tiny size locating by call In early spring is the easiest way of finding one. They sound to my ear rather like a Falcon or perhaps Wryneck ( ). The small size is eyecatching as is the barred back (similar to the larger White backed Woodepcker). In flight the compact shape and undulating flight reminds me of a Hawfinch.  Males have a red forehead which the female lacks.

Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (above) and Female (below). Note the thin streaking to the underparts and the horizontal barring on the upperparts which creates a ‘ladder’ effect.

Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) – This enigmatic Woodpecker is found throughout much of mainland Europe and despite breeding within view of Britain on a clear day from the forests of Northern France it has never been recorded in the UK. It seems to thrive in a multitude of different woodland habitats on the continent from ancient forests to vast conifer plantations (seems to do well In pine forests) and even urban parkland with the one essiential requirement being large mature tree’s in which to nest in.  The Black Woodpecker is surprisingly large and in flight is around the size of a Carrion Crow with a flight similar in style to a Jay. Note that the flight is not undulating unlike most woodpecker species. The jet black plumage, conspicuous white eye and ivory coloured bill also make the largest European Woodpecker unmistakable in a good view. The easiest way of locating them however is by voice at first ( ). Sexing birds is pretty straightforward with a clear view of the head as males have a red stripe extending from above the bill to the nape whilst in females the red is much more restricted to the rear of the head.
Male Black Woodpecker. Note the pale eye which stands out against black plumage, pale dagger like bill and extensive red crown (indicating it is a male).

Black Woodpecker in it's nest hole

Three-toed Woodpecker – this species can be difficult to catch up with in the forest as it seems to prefer the interior zones and doesn’t frequent the outskirts of the forest or clear fell areas. It also has a high habitat dependency on dead or dying tree’s so it can use it’s weaker bill to search for food in the bark. The call of Three-toed woodpecker is a distinctive ‘Churp’( ) but it isn’t very far carrying , also note the drumming is rather slow paced and also quiet.  My first impression of Three-toed Woodpecker was that I was surprised that it’s size was approaching that of Great Spotted Woodpecker (I was expecting it to be smaller for some reason). This is a very distinctive bird with side on and back on views sufficient to nail identification. My initial impression reminded more of an American Woodpecker species . The head pattern shows a thick black mask through the eye separated by white stripes above and below. A very thin malar stripe is also evident in a good view below the lowest white stripe whilst the thinner white stripe behind the eye extends and spreads in shape down onto the back to form a large white patch. Sexing is straightforward with a good view as the male has a black crown and a yellow patch on it’s forehead. The female has a greyer coloured crown and lacks the yellow patch of the male.

Three-toed Woodpecker (male) – Note the very prominent black face mask bordered by thin white lines  on the face. The prominent yellow crown sexes this bird as a male. From behind note how the supercilium broadens from behind the eye and forms a large white patch on the back. A very distinctive yet elusive species.

A good clue that Three-toed Woodpecker is present in the forest is the distinctive holes they leave in bark. They seem to gently tear away at the outer bark and then with needle like precision peck further into the wood leaving these neat 'cartwheel' like indentations in the bark. 

Eurasian Wryneck-. Has a wide breeding range across Europe and is the only woodpecker in Europe which migrates to Africa for the winter. In Britain it Is mainly sighted as a scarce migrant chiefly in Autumn. It’s cryptic plumage, small size and long rounded tail make it easily identified in a good view. In fact I would say they are more likely to be confused with a large Sylvia Warbler and remind me of Barred Warbler especially in a poor flight view. Wryneck is typically a ground feeder with a high dependence on ants to feed on so it favours open areas with bare ground as long as there are holes for nesting nearby. On migration it can be found around dry stone walls, hedgerows and rough patches of land chiefly near the coast. Although mostly silent on migration it is rather vocal on it's breeding territory (very good way of finding birds on territory), it's call sounds more like a raptor than a Woodpecker and reminds me of a Kestrel. ( 
Wryneck's are notoriously difficult to age and sex. This 1st winter bird in the hand showed a  pale grey eye (ochre/red colored in adult) and on the open wing showed fresh unmoulted secondaries (which would be old/retained in an adult during autumn as they moult the secondaries in their wintering grounds).   

Finding a Wryneck on migration is always a great thrill! Pete and myself found this bird at Dozmary Pool;Bodmin Moor feeding on ants in a small garden. It is worth searching  for Wryneck during high pressure systems and easterly/south easterly winds during the Autumn months. We found this bird at the end of August which is a really great time to connect with one. Coastal sites turn up the majority of records but birds are found well inland every year. Scrubland, field margins, blackthorn and dry stone walls  are good habitats for a migrant to rest up and feed .  

References; Woodpeckers Of the World The Complete Guide by Gerard Gorman
Thankyou to Adrian Langdon for the stunning pictures of Green Woodpecker , Lesser Spotted Woodpecker & juvenile Syrian Woodpecker

1 comment:

  1. Hi there - I'm not a birder but record quite a lot of online bird cams (mainly UK ospreys in season, but I stray in the off-season)... I wonder if you can explain the difference between these two woodpeckers, both thought to be Great Spotted?

    (1) At a Czech feeder yesterday:

    (2) At Loch Garten earlier in the year:

    Thank you from a half-Cornish woman in London :)