My favourite woodland birds: Part One - Stephen Moss

Nuthatch (Pictured above)
The Nuthatch is one of our most splendid and handsome looking woodland birds – its steel-blue upperparts contrasting with deep orange-brown underparts, set off by a black highwayman’s mask and that huge bill, giving the bird the appearance of a small woodpecker. The bill – and the bird’s habits – give the Nuthatch its name, which literally means ‘nut-hack’, die to its habit of wedging nuts such as acorns and hazelnuts into a crevice in a tree, and then feeding on them, using that massive, chisel-like bill to take the nut to pieces. The Nuthatch is the only British bird which is able to crawl down a tree trunk as well as up, clinging on with highly efficient claws, so if you catch a glimpse of a bird descending a tree it can only be this species. Nuthatches are found in most broad-leaved woodlands, though their very sedentary habits mean they rarely travel very far during their lifetime – indeed rarely fly more than a few metres from one tree to another. I used to watch Nuthatches in the west London parks near where I lived; nowadays I never see them locally in Somerset, and need to travel to the east or west of the county to finds the mature woodlands the species needs to survive.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
I saw my first Great Spotted Woodpeckers at Minsmere in the early 1970s, and since then I must have seen hundreds, possibly thousands of these smart, black-and-white birds. Yet it’s still always a thrill to hear that high-pitched, penetrating ‘chip’ call, or the sound of a male drumming to defend his territory in early spring. For me, the old name of ‘pied woodpecker’ (as opposed to ‘barred’ for its tiny and elusive cousin the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker) is so much more evocative – when you see a great spot the contrast between the black background and snow-white patches on its back is really distinctive. Once such a shy woodland bird that it was rarely seen, this species is now a regular visitor to gardens, including my own – where this year a pair nested in a hole in one of our old cider apple trees. The youngsters made so much noise it sounded like the nest was being attacked – in fact they were just impatiently waiting for their parents to return with food to sate their appetite! Great Spotted Woodpeckers have enjoyed much better fortunes than Lesser Spotted in the past few decades: the latter species is now so rare it is hardly ever seen except by the keenest and most knowledgeable birders.

More like a mouse than a bird, I love watching a Treecreeper as it circles the trunk of a tree, hugging its tiny body right up to the bark, and clinging on with its sharp claws as if it's afraid of falling off. No other bird seems so attached to the woodland habitat – Treecreepers are the colour of tree bark, with streaks to help them blend in, making them almost impossible to see when they stay still. Only when you see a tiny movement and catch sight of that delicate downcurved bill do you realise that what you have been looking at is a bird, not part of the forest! And when it does move, it’s hardly surprising that a Treecreeper is often mistaken for a rodent, as its jerky movements are more reminiscent of a small mammal than a bird. Treecreepers are usually easier to see in the winter months, when they need to forage for food all day long to avoid dying from lack of energy. At this time of year they often join flocks of other small birds, such as tits and goldcrests, though even here they seem to fade into the background compared to their brasher, bolder cousins. Now that I live on the Somerset Levels I hardly ever see Treecreepers – they are here, but in quite low numbers, breeding amongst the alder carr woods.

Stephen Moss is a television producer, writer and broadcaster, working for the BBC Natural History Unit, where his award-winning TV series include Bill Oddie Goes Wild and Springwatch. His series with Brett Westwood, A Guide to Woodland Birds, is available now from the BBC Shop.

Pictures: Woodpecker  - Nuthatch - Phil McLean/FLPA, Michael Durham/FLPA, Treecreeper - Gordon Langsbury/Alamy

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