On a European scale the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is in the category of "least" conservation concern with a summer population estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000 pairs. In Britain it is on the edge of its range and is declining. The national population estimate published in 2013 suggested 1500 pairs, but the report Rare breeding birds in the UK in 2015 (published December 2017) estimates the true figure may be below 1000. Typically, a high proportion of records are of casual encounters which indicate a more widespread distribution than can be linked to proven territories or breeding sites.
Survey work nationally is being led by Ken and Linda Smith of The Woodpecker Network. Their report on the 2017 season illustrates the difficulty of proving breeding for this species - "This year we received reports of birds or pairs in the breeding season from 85 sites. Despite considerable efforts by all the observers, nest excavations were reported at just 20 of these sites. Not all the excavations resulted in nests with eggs or young but our final tally was 13 ‘active’ nests."
In County Durham up to the autumn of 2017 the position was that "we have no probable or possible breeding attempts of any Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers for the last 10 years", although since then information has come in suggesting successful breeding at one site in 2017. On the other hand Bird atlas, 2007-11 records, together with casual records during the years 2007 to 2012, came from at least 27 tetrads, the majority in the mid-Wear and mid-Tees areas and the western part of the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead.
Without a doubt, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is secretive and for most of the year is hard to observer. Its small size and habit of creeping around in the tops of trees on the branches make it a difficult species to see outside of a small window in early Spring. From late February (in a mild winter) to mid-April is the best time to locate the species. The species becomes vocal during this period, drumming and calling.
Visual identification should present little difficulty to a reasonably experienced birdwatcher if the bird is seen well. The Great Spotted Woodpecker always has bold shoulder patches, whereas the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker has a "ladderback" pattern. The male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker shows a red cap, but this feature should be used with care as it is also present in juvenile Greater Spotted Woodpecker. There is a BTO identification video covering the two species.
Size may occasionally cause confusion in that both black and white woodpeckers are relatively small compared with Green Woodpecker and possibly with observers' expectations. Great Spotted Woodpecker is little bigger than a Starling and Lesser Spotted about the size of a House Sparrow.
A short video posted by Darren Underwood on Twitter in January 2018 provides a useful size comparison between Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Blue Tit. However birds are often not seen well as they regularly feed in the tops of trees and they are usually first located by sound.
To quote The Woodpecker Network "In general, the Lesser Spot drum is much softer and for a longer duration than Great Spot and seems to tail off at the end rather than ending with a flourish. But it is still possible to be confused by a soft drumming Great Spot."
The "kee.kee.kee" call or song, here recorded by Stanislas Wroza in France, is unlike any sound produced by the Great Spotted Woodpecker, being more like the call of a Kestrel. It can also be confused with the song of the Nuthatch.
As it stands in 2017 we have no probable or possible breeding attempts of any Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers for the last 10 years. We know so little about the species in Durham that it is safe to say there are no known sites away from a select few locations. Even sites that held birds and were counted as reliable are no longer guaranteed to produce birds, with no records from some sites for a good few years.
Is there any hope left?
Absolutely! Whilst the DBC does not receive many records of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers throughout the year, there has not been a blank year yet in at least the last 5 years. Even with the only a few people sending in records of the species they are clearly still out there and not extinct as a breeding bird in Durham.
Where do we even start?
Tried and tested methods have already been put in place. Go to locations that birds have previously occupied and listen. Whilst sometimes you may well uncover a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker by sight you are far more likely to hear it calling or drumming first.
The DBC will provide willing volunteers with sites that are suitable to their geographical preferences, then we would ask willing volunteers to attend the site on dry days, sunny is best and with as little wind as possible. The DBC will also provide details on surrounding woodland areas where it is suspected may hold Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers if previously occupied nearby sites turn out not to produce birds.
Aims of the Survey
The Durham survey will aim to cover as many sites and areas as possible where the species is known or suspected to have held territory in the past. If birds are found the next steps will be to try to establish whether they are holding territory and, if possible, to locate and monitor the nest. The approach we are following will be in line with that described by The Woodpecker Network.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker territories are often to be found in odd places in wooded landscapes, though typically not in the centre of mature woods (where Great Spotted Woodpeckers are likely to hold territories). They are more likely to select the edges of woodland or woodland fringes often in areas with high levels of dead wood or associated with wetlands. They can even occur close to housing developments.
If a drumming site is located, potential nest sites can be sought around there. If a pair has a nest they will not travel far, but can range much further outside the breeding season. Nests heights are typically 5 to 15 metres, but can be as low as 2 metres or as high as 25 metres, depending on the availability of dead trunks or branches of sufficient diameter. The nest may be situated on the underside of a branch of definitely dead (not dying) wood, such as birch, alder or poplar. There is no evidence yet of woodpeckers attacking dying ash trees.
Nests can be difficult to find, even in known territories – where there is probably only about a 10% chance of finding the nest.
(Based in part on information supplied by Ken and Linda Smith of The Woodpecker Network)
How to Take Part
If you would like to take part and feel confident of identifying Lesser Spotted Woodpecker please e-mail Durham Bird Club using the subject line "LSW Survey". Please indicate your preferred area for fieldwork, but also how far you are prepared to travel. We will provide willing volunteers with sites that are suitable to their geographical preferences, then we would ask you to attend the site on dry days - sunny is best and with as little wind as possible. We will also provide details on surrounding woodland areas which it is suspected may hold Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers if previously occupied nearby sites turn out not to produce birds.
Please note the following points
The survey season for this species is in a short window from very start of March through to mid April
This is a presence/absence survey, not an abundance one
The survey is best undertaken on dry, sunny, calm days
Observers need to consider confusion calls and sounds from species like that Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker
A visit to a site 2-3 times without luck doesn't mean they are no longer there, keep at it
More than 2 Lesser Spotted Woodpecker records received anywhere in Durham from two different sites would be an undoubted success
A negative result is just as important as a positive one;
There has never been a survey or any kind of concerted effort to find Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers before in Durham.
If you think you have found Lesser Spotted Woodpecker please e-mail Durham Bird Club Records using the subject line "LSW Survey" as soon as possible
We will be sharing our results with The Woodpecker Network, but they have undertaken to respect confidentiality.
Please keep checking back here for updates as this page will continue to change.
DBC Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Survey
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - Durham Dales (Derek Charlton)