This autumn has seen a larger than usual passage of wrynecks, with good numbers of these smart little birds arriving on the coast over a single weekend. Most were seen at traditional sites, like the dunes at Holme and the short turf of Beeston Bump, but a few turned up further inland, including one at the RSPB’s Strumpshaw Fen reserve.
The wryneck is a member of the woodpecker family, a sister species with an ancient and separate lineage from our other woodpeckers. It was once a familiar breeding species in England, with most English counties holding breeding pairs at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Since then the breeding population has evaporated, with numbers dwindling over the following decades and the species lost as a regular breeder. Very occasional breeding attempts are noted today and the wryneck is now best regarded as a passage visitor, passing through on spring and autumn migration. Unusually for a woodpecker the wryneck is a long-distance migrant, with western populations breeding in northern Europe and wintering in sub-Saharan Africa.
Passage wrynecks seem to like the short turf of garden lawns, a consequence of the ant colonies they support. Spending a lot of time on the ground, wrynecks can be tricky to spot because of their vermiculated plumage: a mix of browns, greys and black. Unlike other woodpeckers wrynecks do not use their tail for support when climbing, nor do they hammer at wood with their bill, preferring instead to chisel and lever away material.
The loss of wrynecks from Britain as a breeding species has been linked by some to a decline in ant populations, but it is more likely to be the result of a wider decline in populations over the western European part of the breeding range. Britain is on the margins of this breeding range and any decline in populations elsewhere is likely to have had an impact here. Your best chance of seeing a wryneck is to visit the coast at this time of the year and to seek out areas of short turf – golf courses are ideal. Watch the weather forecast the evening before and look for a run of easterly winds that may push autumn migrants towards our shores.