Scotland boasts many brightly coloured species and one only has to think of the impossibly bright iridescent blue and orange of a kingfisher, or a jay with its soft pink hue. The loud yellow on the breast of a great tit can rival the feathers of any foreign pretender, as can the striking plumage of a goldfinch.
But there is another Scottish bird that stands out head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to colour and vibrancy. It is the green woodpecker, with its bright green body and shiny crimson cap more than matching the plumage of a tropical parrot. It is even the size of a small parrot and has a characteristic piercing call that would not sound out of place in the cacophony of noise found in any rainforest.
The green woodpecker is a relative newcomer to Scotland with the first recorded breeding occurring in the early 1950s after the bird had spread from England. It is now found in many central, eastern and southern parts of the country, although it is patchily distributed and always occurs in low numbers.
Its shy and retiring nature usually makes it difficult to obtain a good view of its bright plumage, and more often than not the first sight of the bird is in the air as it moves from one patch of trees to another in an easy and undulating flight. It will carefully work its way up a tree trunk, frequently stopping to beat the bark in search of invertebrates, which are captured with a quick flick of its long tongue. Unusually for a woodpecker, the bird also likes open areas and often feeds on the ground, as it has a particular fondness for ants.
Its remarkable call is usually the first indication that there is a green woodpecker in the vicinity. It is somewhat similar to that of a bird of prey, but much louder. It is the suddenness of the call that always surprises; one second the woodland is quiet and then, like a high-pitched machine gun, the sharply repeated notes reverberate all around, making it difficult to pinpoint their exact origination. The call is usually described as a laughing 'yaffle', although 'yodel' would be an equally appropriate term.
The green woodpecker is unlikely to be confused with its commoner cousin, the great spotted woodpecker. It too is a handsome bird, black and white with a prominent patch of red under the tail. The male can be distinguished from the female by a small scarlet patch on his nape.
Rather than a striking yodel, the most frequent call of the great spotted woodpecker is a simple metallic 'tchick' that once recognised is easy to discern from surrounding bird sounds. From the middle of January until June, the great spotted will also 'drum' to advertise its presence – a vibrating rattle produced by the rapid and repeated blows of its strong bill against a tree trunk or branch, the noise of which can carry surprisingly far, especially if the bough is hollow so as to provide extra resonance.
In recent decades the great spotted has taken to visiting garden bird tables in winter and this usually represents the best chance of getting a good view of this attractive bird. It is much shyer than most other bird-table visitors and will be off at the slightest hint of danger.
Both species of woodpecker are doing relatively well in Scotland with afforestation since the Second World War, and particularly the maturation of such trees in more recent times, helping to sustain numbers. There are some signs that the remarkable range expansion enjoyed by the green woodpecker in the last 60 years or so may now have reached its peak and that the bird is vulnerable to localised extinctions in some parts of its range.