Country diary: green woodpecker makes his annual flying visit

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A flash of green and red against the lawn’s matt white stubble: striking colours at any time of year, startling at this one. It’s December, and the little alien is back.

This male green woodpecker, the largest species of Britain’s three, has been visiting the garden for three years now. By that, I mean he has visited three times, each within the same calendar fortnight.

We presume it’s the same bird, of course. We’ve discussed a name, too, though this particular bird doesn’t need any more of those. Yockel, Yappingale, Laughing Betsy – all rural appellations referencing the cacophonous, cackling call. He also has a spot, about 20 metres from the house.

You don’t miss birds like this. Those markings, yes, all patches and caps and aeronautical chevrons, like a weird flight suit. But his movements too: antsy, wired, as if waiting to be swooped upon. The way he hammers the ground, mining for ants in the nest under his feet.

Both previous years, after a few days, he was gone. This year, same. We’re lucky with our birds: at low level through the year we get all kinds, from finches to starlings (who once moved in to our loft) to noisy blackbirds and territorial robins, all watched by a parade of aerial observers: red kites, seagulls, this week a kestrel.

But this guy seems to just drop in, in mid-December, always on the lawn, then drop straight out. And I started to wonder why. Where did he go in between? Where was his nest? And moreover, why this garden, at exactly this time of year? I wouldn’t ever get to know the answers. Instead, I just enjoy that he’s here.

The frost is hard this year, and I watch him pound at the ground. On what turns out to be his last visit, I watch him through a camera lens. Fascinating. I see something in his mouth and presume a worm: it’s his tongue, retracting back into his head. And that eye: silvery, inscrutable.

He’s looking up in the danger direction again, and I take a picture before he’s gone. I look and see that I’ve caught his nictating membrane, mid-slide, over his right eye. I can’t see the other, so I take it as a wink. See you next year, I hope.

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