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Part 7 - The Great Spotted Woodpecker and the Goldfinch

Great Spotted Woodpecker – Dendrocopos major

A line drawing of the Great Spotted Woodpecker

Several people in Kingston have asked me whether they might have seen a lesser spotted woodpecker in their garden: one man was quite adamant that he had done so. While anything is possible, the larger of the two black and white woodpeckers is a much more likely visitor. The smaller species is only about the size of a house sparrow and typically spends most of its time in thin branches at the tops of trees. It is far less common than it once was. One reason put forward to account for its decline is the increasing success of its great spotted cousin, although given the time that the two species have co-existed, this doesn’t seem very credible to me. There is no doubting, however, that “great spotteds” are doing very well indeed at the moment. They are even to be seen in Hyde Park these days!

They come quite readily to bird feeders where peanuts are on offer, the smaller tits, finches and starlings quickly deferring to the woodpecker’s dagger-like bill. In later winter and early spring, that same bill produces the drumming sound which is the woodpecker’s equivalent of a song. At other times of the year, the woodpecker’s presence is less obvious but if you are familiar with their call note – a harsh, explosive “chick” not unlike that of a blackbird’s alarm – you come to realise that these birds are with us all year round, although there are probably only two pairs in the village. The telegraph poles and large trees in The Avenue are much favoured.

Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis

A photo of a Goldfinch taken in May 2008 by Rhys Haden

These small finches are easily recognised, even when, as juveniles, they have still to acquire the bright red patch on the face. Their bright yellow wing bars and the black and white pattern on tail, rump and head make it impossible to mistake them for anything else.

Goldfinches love thistle seeds and are named after them – twice over, in fact! They are also fond of a wide variety of other seeds of garden plants including sunflower and Cosmos. In the last few years, the fruits of another closely-related plant - Guizota abyssinica - of the huge daisy family have been sold as bird food under the name of niger, or, for some reason, nyjer seed. Goldfinches acquired a taste for these immediately. The seeds are so tiny that you need a special dispenser for them but if you want to see goldfinches at close quarters, this is the way to do it.

The birds can be seen in Kingston throughout the year. In later summer, they gather in quite large flocks on the Downs to feed on the seeds of thistle and ragwort, often associating with groups of linnets to which they are quite closely related. Like linnets, goldfinches were, until relatively recently in this country, widely kept as cagebirds for their sweet singing. Their call note is a little like that of a swallow but even more reminiscent of several small bells ringing in the wind.

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