In Search of…


Great-spotted woodpecker on a tree
Image Source: Andrej Chudý

On The Nature Nook’s last walk, searching for seals around Berry Head, we heard the call of a great-spotted woodpecker in a small thicket, though we sadly didn’t see the bird itself. This time, we decided to set out to look specifically for these delightful head bangers. Tor Bay has so much beautiful coastline that it is easy to neglect the woodland that is also practically on our doorstep. So Alex and I headed inland for a change, to a place called Occombe Woods, nestled in a valley between Paignton and Torquay.

Once we’d left the urban bustle behind, we eventually reached a pleasant country path lined with hedgerows that were bustling with birds – tits, robins, dunnocks and sparrows. Further on, we passed the 200-year-old ruins of an old stone wood mill, cloaked in vegetation, which seemed to have several birds nesting within.

It was perhaps the warmest day of the year so far and we were glad when we finally reached the cool shade of the trees. I later discovered that Occombe Woods is classified as ‘ancient semi-natural woodland’ and has been here, in one form or another, since the 1600s, making this one of the few blocks of woodland in the country to have survived unchanged for so long.

Occombe Woods
‘Occombe’ loosely translates to ‘valley of the oaks’

We took a circular route around the woods. To our right was a babbling brook; to our left, rising up from the valley floor, the wood became thicker and almost impenetrable, the ground carpeted with ferns and bracken.

Through a gap in the trees, I could see a buzzard circling far, far overhead. Buzzards were once much rarer in this country, struggling to recover from decades of persecution by farmers and gamekeepers. But since the 1990s, the numbers of this bulky raptor have risen spectacularly. Twenty years ago or so, our commonest and most familiar bird of prey was the kestrel, but since then the buzzard has easily overtaken it – there are now at least 75,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

An unusual, slightly muffled sound grabbed our attention. A woodpecker? No. It was a song thrush bashing a snail against a rock in order to break its shell and reach the juicy flesh inside. Further ahead, we saw several more rocks that the thrush had clearly already used as an anvil because there were small remnants of shell and even dried snail slime on them.

Another sound – this time a loud, harsh screech. We turned quickly to see a jay flying away through the trees. It was a brief sighting, but we later caught up to the bird and got much better views. Unlike most members of the crow family, which are generally black, the jay is much more flamboyantly coloured – a pinkish-brown bird with a black throat and a vivid patch of blue on the wings.

And finally, the sound that we had been hoping to hear: the low drumming of a great-spotted woodpecker bashing its bill against a tree. But even though we honed in on the noise and reached the bottom of the tree that we felt the drumming was coming from, we couldn’t see the bird responsible, high up in the branches.

We did, however, get good views of another bird, one with blue-grey upper parts, a chestnut belly and a black eye-stripe that was descending a tree headfirst. It was a nuthatch, the only British bird with the squirrel-like ability to scurry down and around trunks as well as it can move up them. It uses its powerful, chisel-like bill to prise away pieces of bark in search of insects, or to hammer open nuts and seeds (the name ‘nuthatch’ derives from the phrase ‘nut-hack’).

Nuthatch perched on a branch
Nuthatches nest in holes and trees and in order to keep out aggressive birds, such as woodpeckers, they often pack mud around the entrance hole to narrow it.
Image Source: Isiwal

In addition to birds, we also saw several insects on our walk. As the circular path began to take us back to the entrance to the woods, it now lay in direct sunlight, and several butterflies were basking in the warmth, their wings outstretched to catch the sun’s rays. The eyespots on the wings of the first few that we saw told us that they were peacock butterflies. There was also a bright-lemon male brimstone butterfly. But the species that we found most interesting was the comma.

The upper wings of the comma butterfly are orange, blotched with black and yellow, but the undersides are a drab brown with what looks like mouldy patches and irregular veins. This colouration, coupled with the wings’ ragged outline, makes the butterfly look like a dried, fallen leaf – uninteresting to both predators and herbivores. The only conspicuous thing on the underside of the butterfly’s wings is a small white C, or comma (hence its name). This may appear to ruin the butterfly’s mottled camouflage, but this white mark is thought to mimic a torn chink in the withered leaf, a tiny ‘tear’ through which light appears to shine.

Comma butterfly
Thanks to its raggedy wings, which almost look as though someone has torn them roughly along the edges, the comma butterfly is one of our easiest butterflies to identify.
Image Source: Hectonichus

Did we see a woodpecker in the end? Well, yes, we did – just. On our way back through the patch of woodland where we had heard the bird earlier, the sound of drumming once again caused us to pause and search the trees. Using my binoculars, I spent the next few minutes slowly scouring every inch of the branches nearby until, finally, the image of a great-spotted woodpecker appeared. But only for a second. Almost as though it had realised it had been spotted, the woodpecker decided it was time to move on, and in a flurry of red, black and white, it had gone.

Male great-spotted woodpecker on a bird feeder
Male great-spotted woodpeckers have a red patch on the back of their heads (nape), which females lack. Juveniles have a red cap.
Image Source: Carola68

Fortunately, just as we were leaving the woods, something happened to make up for our disappointing woodpecker sighting. In a large garden opposite us, just a couple of metres away in the middle of the lawn, sat a large, brown bird. A buzzard. It looked up and stared at us with sharp, piercing eyes, in the way that only birds of prey can do. Then, opening its impressive wings, it launched itself into the air and flew away – a brief but thrilling climax to a lovely stroll around the woods.

On our next (extra-long) walk, we’ll be travelling from Exeter city centre, along the River Exe to Starcross, in search of wading birds.

Also seen on this walk: Coot

Running Total (Bird Species): 47


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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