Woodpecker guide: UK species, how to identify and where to see

There are three species of woodpecker and one species of wryneck in the UK – find out how to tell the difference with our guide to woodpeckers

Great spotted woodpecker on moss log
Published: April 28th, 2022 at 6:32 am

Woodland sounds come in many forms; the creaking and rubbing of trees against themselves; the rustle of a roe deer's hoof in the leaf litter; the tittering and chirruping of small forest birds. But one of the most distinctive sounds must be that of a woodpecker drumming its pointed bill against the trunk of a tree.

Less obvious amid the chorus of other woodland birds, though still distinctive, are the calls of Britain's woodpecker species.

So now you know they're there. But seeing them is another matter. If you are lucky enough to spot one, your next challenge is to identify them. Here's how to tell Britain's woodpeckers apart.

Green woodpecker
Green woodpeckers have a long, bouncing flight/Credit: Alamy

What is a woodpecker?

A woodpecker is a medium-sized bird with distinctive colouration, a pointed bill, round head, long tongue and stiff tail. Woodpecker species tend to have a long, bouncing flight.

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How many species of woodpecker are there in the UK?

There are three species of woodpecker in the UK and one species of wryneck (a group of small Old World woodpeckers), which appears as a passage migrant in spring and autumn. Worldwide, there are more than 200 species of woodpecker and just two species of wryneck.


When is the best time to see woodpeckers?

Late winter is an excellent time to go woodpecker spotting – with fewer leaves on the trees, they are more visible and their drumming reverberates through stark woodlands.


UK woodpecker ID guide

Great spotted woodpecker

Dendrocopos major

Great spotted woodpecker
Great spotted woodpeckers are the size of blackbirds/Credit: Getty

Largely black and white with flashes of red on the back of its head and rear, this is the size of a blackbird. Its bursts of drumming in spring are a courtship call. Its emits a high pitched ‘kik’ sound and has distinctive undulating flight. Of the four, it’s most likely to visit garden birdfeeders.

Lesser spotted woodpecker

Dendrocopos minor

Lesser spotted woodpeckers can be seen in the hazel and oak woodland
For your best chance of spotting a lesser spotted woodpecker, head to a hazel and oak woodland/Credit: Getty

This tiny sparrow-sized bird is now extremely scarce in the UK, and even harder to see as it lives high among the outer twigs of trees. It lacks the great spotted’s white shoulder patches and drums much faster – 15 blows a second compared to the 8-10 of its larger cousin.

Green woodpecker

Picus viridis

Bird looking for its food on the ground
Green woodpecker looking for its food on the ground/Credit: Getty

With its red crown and green-yellow body, this species is often mistaken for an escaped parrot. Though it nests in woods, it tends to forage in parkland and meadows where it probes anthills to eat ants and their larvae. Laughing, shrieking call – known as the ‘yaffle’.

Wryneck

Jynx torquilla

Bird on a tree
The are just species of wryneck in the world/Credit: Piotr Krzeslak, Getty
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This tiny mottled brown woodpecker is extinct as a breeding bird in Britain but still appears on passage in spring and autumn – especially in gardens. It hunts ants and, unlike other woodpeckers, lives mainly on the ground.

Authors

Fergus CollinsEditor, BBC Countryfile Magazine
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