The wryneck

David Chapman / 10 September 2018

The wryneck is a member of the woodpecker family that can sometimes be spotted in Britain in September as it passes through on its way from Scandinavia to Africa.



From a bird watching perspective September is probably the most exciting month of the year. During September we see a huge movement of migratory birds passing through the country. The number of adult birds which headed north in the spring is hopefully boosted by youngsters making the first southerly migration of their lives.

Being an island on the edge of a continent Britain is very well-placed for receiving wind-blown waifs and strays from around the world. Many of the very rare birds that find their way accidentally to our shores are in their first-year and are novices to the migration to which they are instinctively drawn, but a much greater proportion of migrating birds are those commoner species which have bred in Britain or maybe Scandinavia and regularly make the journey south.

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Probably the most visible form of bird migration from our houses and gardens will be of swallows passing overhead. We are all familiar with them perching on telegraph wires where they gather to head off in flocks. But there are many other more secretive birds passing through, many will migrate at night and melt away into the vegetation to feed during the day.

Bird migration is often brought to a standstill if visibility is reduced by fog or rain. So, the next foggy morning in September, if you have chance, try sitting and looking out into your garden to see what is hiding in the shrubbery.

I have a relatively large garden on the edge of open country in Cornwall and this has an impact on what I see. Chiffchaffs are one of our most regular migrants, small groups of them mix in with flocks of tits and work their way through our garden. Spotted flycatchers sometimes spend a few hours with us and each time they do I hope they will find our wisteria attractive enough to make a home next summer, but they never do.

One year I had the good fortune to spot a wryneck. This is a member of the woodpecker family but its behaviour and appearance are different. Significant to this article the wryneck is our only true migratory species of woodpecker, visiting northerly climes in summer and returning to Africa each winter.

Identifying the wryneck

Compared to other woodpeckers the wryneck has a short beak which is not well-suited to digging. So, unlike the others, the wryneck doesn’t make its own nest hole, preferring to breed in nest boxes or tree-holes created by other birds. Its perching behaviour is also different to other woodpeckers. Most woodpeckers perch and climb on trees facing upwards, using their tail to support their weight, but wrynecks have the versatility of a nuthatch and will perch at right angles to branches like a sparrow or finch might do.

The wryneck spends a fair amount of time on the ground feeding on ants, a little like a green woodpecker does. Our garden is quite good for ants and we often have green woodpeckers visit our patio but a couple of years ago in September it was a wryneck that caught my eye.

I was lucky to spot it because the wryneck is very small, not much bigger than a sparrow, exceptionally well camouflaged and it spent much of its time motionless. The wryneck’s plumage is brown and grey with a barred design broken up by various streaks and spots making a cryptic pattern which helps to break up the outline of the bird. The only other similar British bird is the nightjar though some of our owls also have a cryptic plumage. When perched on a tree trunk or lichen-covered rock the wryneck becomes almost invisible.

My wryneck seemed to be enjoying the sun on its back and it sat completely still. I got my binoculars onto it to have a closer look and watched it turn its head through almost 180o. Its ability to turn its head like this is the reason for its name and I suppose this is a mechanism which helps them stay still, saving energy and utilising their excellent camouflage, whilst still being able to see all around a little like an owl does.

The wryneck was once a common breeding bird in Britain. Regarded as numerous in the 19th century and even as recently as the 1950’s records of them breeding in southern England were quite common but its range gradually contracted leaving just a handful of pairs in Scotland in the early 21st century. It is now thought to be extinct as a breeding bird in Britain though it is likely that one or two pairs occasionally breed and maybe go unnoticed.

However it is still numerous in Scandinavia and given a flow of easterly winds in September many of these will fly over our shores on their way south. They are most frequently seen along the east and south coasts of Britain with a few hundred records each year but there can be no doubt that many go unrecorded due to their camouflage and secretive manner.

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