Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Green Woodpecker Challenge

Despite slowly extending their range northward within the UK, the Green Woodpecker remains a fairly scarce bird where I live in North-West of England.  There is one reasonably local site that this striking bird can be seen reasonably regularly which is an old graveyard where I have only ever seen the male and young birds present.  However, seeing a green woodpecker and photographing one is completely different challenge as they are extremely wary and unapproachable birds and can prove incredibly frustrating at times. Of course bird photography often requires you to get close to a bird, even with a long lens, which comes as a surprise to those not involved in wildlife photography. The common belief when someone sees a photographer with a long lens is that you are able to photograph your subject from several kilometers away but the reality is the bird actually needs to be within a few metres of you. The Green Woodpecker photography challenge is also compounded by the fact that I am trying to find a single green bird that spends most of its time in the grass and has hundreds of gravestones to hide behind in a 30 hectare area.
When I returned from Romania this year I was determined to have a concentrated effort trying to photograph this tricky but very beautiful bird. During the mid-summer period these woodpeckers become preoccupied with gathering their main prey of ants for their rapidly growing young, holed up in a tree somewhere unknown, and become slightly more approachable. I decided I would target the evenings, as it would allow an after work session and the graveyard would be generally quieter. The first task was to try and establish the movements of the solitary male bird.

The male below showing a bulging crop having excavated several ant nests in the course of the evening, with some still stuck on its beak.

I have learnt that Green Woodpeckers often show regular patterns of behaviour and will routinely visit certain areas at particular times of day which is no doubt is tied into the activity of ant nests. It took a couple of visits, and listening hard for that distinctive 'yaffle' call to locate the male before I worked out that he could generally be found in an area about the size of two football pitches between 6:00pm and 8:30pm. I then visited 2 to 3 evenings a week over about a month period. Slowly I started to capture some images and the more time I spent with the bird the more I learnt about how best to approach it. Soon I was starting to get full frame images. The important point was once located you could not let the bird out of your sight for a moment. If it made a short flight I used the graves as a reference point to where it had landed. On occasions it would seem to just vanish into thin air! Frequently it would hop behind a gravestone and I would wait for some time for it to reappear on the other side and it never would. I would re-position myself to try and see the bird and it would be gone, having hopped directly away from me with the tombstone shielding its 'escape'. The process of trying to relocate it would then have to start all over again and often proved unsuccessful. Another important lesson was the benefit trying to predict the route the bird would move along on the ground and to get in position and wait for it to hop towards me. This worked some of the time!

Inevitably with the site being a graveyard I ended up with the occasional photograph of the woodpecker perched on top of a gravestone, as it rested in between excavating ant nests.

Interestingly, I found the bird was very sensitive to the camera shutter noise, so I resorted to using my Canon 1DmkIV rather than the 1DX which is a great deal quieter in so called 'silent mode'.

Capturing the a Green Woodpecker perched on a tree is extremely difficult as it will inevitably move around to the far side away from you, occasionally peeking around the trunk to keep an eye on your position. On one occasion I was fortunate as a person passing forced it to move around the tree and into the line of my waiting camera. A photograph I have longed to take.
After about three weeks of evening sessions, a new woodpecker call could be heard, as a solitary young bird appeared.  It had obviously not been a very successful breeding year. The young birds appear to fledge with the same very wary  temperament as the adults.

From previous experience the young birds tend to follow the male who keeps feeding them while they quickly learn the business of finding ants and seem to become independent very quickly.
This usually only last a week or two and then all the woodpeckers disappear as the young disperse out of the adults territory and the adult goes into a late summer moult.
The photographs above are a selection from the Green Woodpecker challenge which actually went much better than I expected.  I will post more photos from these summer evening sessions in a future blog post. Some very memorable warm summer evenings were spent in the company of this charismatic species and I hope it is something I can repeat in future years having gained a better insight into how to get them in front of the camera.


Linda said...

We don't have that woodpecker in Virginia. Wonderful photos!

holdingmoments said...

An excellent set Richard.

They are quite common where I live, and I can see them most days. As you say though, a very, very wary bird, and quite difficult to get close to.
A great challenge though.

Findlay Wilde said...

These are brilliant pictures. I have only got close to Green Woodies once on holiday in Cornwall, but I was so excited the pictures we're blurry. From Findlay

JR said...

Once again great photos of this lovely bird.

The happy wanderer. said...

A very helpful write-up of your technique with a difficult subject, and illustrated with some great results.

Dean Eades said...


David Gascoigne said...

Not only do you have great pictures, your commentaries and detailed and interesting.

Rich Steel said...

Thanks for leaving some replies. I think the green woodpecker has been one of my most difficult subjects and every image was hard own but it wouldn't be fun without a challenge.




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