March is prime time to go looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

At this time of year, with no leaves on the trees, the species is both audible and visible – something they very rarely are during the rest of the year.

Several factors render finding 'Lesser Spots' challenging: for starters they are generally elusive birds, they have declined massively in most areas and also have huge (hundreds of hectares) ranges outside the breeding season. This generally shrinks at this time of year, though, as they settle down to breed, but by mid-April birds that were previously straightforward to see can seemingly vanish.

The Woodpecker Network (TWN) and specifically their Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Network (LSWN) – supported by the UK Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP) – has been running since 2015 with the project currently focused on understanding Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. LSWN offers support to volunteer birdwatchers nationally to find and monitor nests systematically, and to pool the results. 

Pretty much any woodland can hold the species – from relatively open parkland to extensive woodland – but generally areas with high levels of dead wood or woods associated with wetlands are the most productive. Within these areas, they are often found on the edges and not the deepest parts of the woodland. 

Early mornings are, unsurprisingly, best, with drumming and vocalisations more often than not at their peak at this time. Getting your ear around Lesser Spot drumming is very useful – it's softer and flatter than Great Spotted Woodpecker and also lacks a flourish at the end, but does have a more intense, 'machine gun' quality with shorter intervals. Plenty of excellent recordings can be studied on sites such as xeno-canto.

Finding a drumming Lesser Spot or, even better, a pair, is both a joy and a challenge. Finding the nest, however, is an even harder task. Persistence is key, but there are a few tips that LSWN offers. Namely, nests are almost always in dead trees or dead limbs on live trees. So, before the leaves appear, have a thorough check around any displaying area and note any potential nest sites to be visited later. 

From April onward, any signs of nest excavation (such as woodchips on the ground beneath the tree) is a good indication. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers do frequently excavate in the same tree used for a nest hole before and have even been known to re-use the nest cavity itself. The nest hole is only about 30 mm diameter (by comparison, Great Spotted is closer to 50 mm, Green Woodpecker 70 mm). Any pair will generally be very inconspicuous during the laying season, with the adults changing over about once every two hours.

Once hatched, the chicks are fed constantly, normally within the nest hole, until a week or so before fledging. At times youngsters can be quite noisy and even be seen looking out of the nest hole, waiting to be fed. Indeed, finding hungry youngsters and constantly busy adults can be the easiest way to find the nest.

LSWN, naturally, does not disclose the location of any nest site. With such a declining population across Britain, it goes without saying that Lesser Spot sites should be treated with the greatest sensitivity. To achieve this, it is best to avoid putting details in the public domain, such as on social media, personal websites or bird news services. To minimise disturbance, observers should keep their distance when studying the species. 

So, why not take a walk in your local woodland and try and pin down a pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in the coming days and weeks?

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