Saturday 8 April 2023

A to Z challenge 22023 - G is for . . .


A to Z challenge 2023 – G is for . . .

My theme for this challenge is Nature in all much of her wonderful diversity. My posts will reflect the fact that I am resident in the south of England.

All photographs in this post are the property of the writer, with the exception of the one about Shel Silverstein

 Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Of all the birds that visit my garden, the great spotted woodpecker is one of my favourites and I am always elated to see, or more likely hear one. They are native to the UK and are common in England and Wales. They are not found in the far north of Scotland and there are only a few pairs nesting in Ireland, though numbers are increasing.

This photograph show a juvenile with its red cap. The cap disappears in adults, with the male developing a scarlet flash and red being absent from the female's head

Spring is the time of year when the loud drumming of this bird can be heard. Both males and females make their presence known and defend their territory by rapidly hammering their bills against dead tree trunks. The sound can be heard over long distances and is effectively their song, although they do also have an unremarkable call of a screech and a falling whistling note.

The male has a scarlet flash on the back of its head and juveniles have red caps. Males and females both have red rumps. It is a striking bird – in more senses than one! – and is about 22 to 23 cms in length, so slightly smaller than a blackbird.

The birds feed on insects, worms, snails, tree seeds, eggs and young birds and are also regular visitors to garden bird feeders.

Scientists have studied the shock-absorbing skulls of these birds in an endeavour to develop more effective protective headgear for humans.

A Polish legend explains how the woodpecker got the scarlet flash on his head.

God and the devil had a competition to plough their fields. God had a woodpecker and the devil used a horse, which was much more effective. God secretly borrowed the horse overnight and ploughed his entire field. The next day, the devil saw the field and was persuaded that the woodpecker had done it, so he asked God to swap the horse and the bird. He soon discovered that the woodpecker could not plough and in his anger at being tricked, he hit the woodpecker’s head, which bled, leaving a red mark.


Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote a short verse about the woodpecker.

‘His bill an auger is,

His head, a cap and frill.

He laboreth at every tree,-

A worm his utmost goal’


Shel Silverstein (1930 – 1999) took a more light-hearted approach. ‘Peckin’’ comes from his book, ‘A light in the Attic’, which was dedicated to his daughter, who died of a cerebral aneurysm when she was 11.)


Green woodpecker (Picus viridis)

The Green woodpecker is also one of my favourite birds and is the UK’s largest woodpecker. Called the Yaffle, after its chuckling flight call, the Green woodpecker is very much shyer than the Great spotted woodpecker and is more often heard than seen. It has a short-tailed green body, a brilliant yellow rump and a bright red crown.

Green woodpeckers spend most of their time feeding on the ground, probing the soil for ants. They live and breed in all areas of the UK, apart from Ireland and the far north and west of Scotland. (Ireland and the north of Scotland seem to miss out quite a lot, really!)

This image has been cropped from a much larger photograph of a green woodpecker in a very tall oak tree

Other folk names for the Yaffle include laughing Betsey, yaffingale, and nicker pecker. It’s also known as the rain-bird, weather cock or wet bird, because it is thought to have the ability to summon rain, or maybe it just foretells it, along with seaweed.

Both woodpeckers have extremely long tongues, which they use to catch insects. The green woodpecker’s tongue is about 10 cms long, one third of its body length, another fact to ponder.

(Suppose humans had tongues of comparable ratio? Garrulous people would be tripping over their tongues all the time, even stepping on them. Would biting one’s own tongue be more or less painful if there were yards of it? And how would the taste buds be distributed? So many questions, too few answers.)

  When the woodpecker’s tongue is not is use it is coiled around its skull, wrapped around its brain. (That thought makes me feel quite queasy.)

In the great spotted woodpecker’s case, the coiled tongue provides a buffer to protect the brain against concussion during the speedy pecking required for drumming. The Green woodpecker doesn’t drum with the same ferocity or frequency as the Great spotted woodpecker.

My second G is for Gossamer.

Orb web spun by common garden  or cross spider

Gossamer is the fine silk produced by spiders. All spiders produce silk but the silk can be used in many different ways. Most spiders vary the viscosity of their silk according to how it is to be used. Same use it in orb webs to capture prey, while others wrap their victims in the fine filaments, often having first immobilised them with venom. Some male spiders produce sperm webs in which the eggs are covered in silken cocoons.

                Spiderlings almost ready to sail away on a gentle breeze

On a sunny day in summer spiderlings can be seen floating through the warm air on strands of gossamer, being dispersed far and wide. This is known as ‘ballooning’ or ‘kiting’.

For some spiders, the webs of others are a source of sustenance. Parasitic spiders live on the webs of orb spinners and feed on the insects captured there. Some spiders build webs daily and consume the damaged remains at the end of the day.

Others use a single skein of silk as an emergency line when they fall, or as a trail to find their way home again.

Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) was an English poet and novelist. While incarcerated in Debtor’s Prison in 1783, she wrote ’Elegiac Sonnets’.


 Sonnet LXIII is called ‘The Gossamer’.

‘O’er faded heath-flowers spun, or thorny furze,

The filmy Gossamer is lightly spread;

Waving in every sighing air that stirs,

As Fairy fingers had entwined the thread:

A thousand trembling orbs of lucid dew

Spangle the texture of the fairy loom,

As if soft Sylphs, lamenting as they flew,

Had wept departed Summer’s transient bloom:

But the wind rises, and the turf receives

The glittering web:- So, evanescent, fade

Bright views that Youth with sanguine heart believes:

So vanish schemes of bliss, by Fancy made;

Which, fragile as the fleeting dews of morn,

Leave but the wither’d heath, and barren thorn!


The best time of day to see gossamer is early morning before the world is awake.


G is also for Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) another little bird to bring joy in its wake, and a bird that uses spider silk to help bind its nest.

It is native to the British Isles, except in the most mountainous parts of Scotland, and has been introduced to other countries, including Australia and New Zealand.

Carduelis is the Latin word for goldfinch. The English word was used by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century in his unfinished ‘The Cook’s Tale’

‘Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe’

(Gaily dressed he was as is a goldfinch in the woods)

Although I dislike clowns, Goldfinches always remind me of them, with their brightly-coloured heads, but the less alarming, less grotesque clowns. They gather together in small flocks, called a charm, although in the cold of winter they may gather in flocks of around 100, and some may migrate to Spain to avoid the worst of the weather.

The goldfinch has a slender pointed beak well adapted to extricate seed from thistles and teasels, although they feed their young on insects in the spring and summer.

Historically, goldfinches were kept as caged songbirds and are often represented in Italian Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child.


  1. How very English to go to Spain as the goldfinch does for the winter. Woodpeckers really interest me as we don't have them here. I note, northern Scotland is probably not the best place to visit if the birds in southern England don't see it as good real estate.

    1. You're right. However, it does have a small number of breeding resident redwings, in the far north, and ospreys arrive in April - that reminds me, I must have a look at the nesting sites (online, of course!)

  2. Awesome post, and awesomer photos! Glad I found your blog!

    Reading about the pretty birds, I'm reminded of the question 'What is a crow's fortune?' Of course, it is its lack of color and harsh voice. If it had pretty colors and sang sweetly, it would have been caged somewhere!


  3. I've never heard of the crow's fortune - how wonderful.

  4. Woodpecker is such a fascinating bird. Your post reminded me of my childhood days in my home state of Kerala, where we used to spot a number of them in the woods. Ever since I started living in cities, I have never seen them.
    G for Gallium

    1. Cities and wildlife don't always co-exist - I suppose it depends on the amount of green space there is.

  5. Interesting with all the birds, but a little shocking to discover God was a cheat when he borrowed the Devil's horse to plough his field.

  6. How wonderful to have woodpeckers visiting your garden!
    Love the Emily Dickinson poem, and your gossamer photos which are once again fantastic! xxx

    1. We are lucky to have quite a variey of birds visiting our garden x

  7. Love the spotted woodpecker photos! We have a few in my urban neighborhood in NYC -- attracted by the aging trees. They really make some noise when they are pecking away!

  8. We have a Greater Spotted woodpecker that visits the birdfeeders on occasion, but so rarely (about once every 2 months) that we wonder what we should add to to selection to encourage it to return more often. We have had one green woodpecker on our ant infested lawn in all the years we have lived here - perhaps we need a sign saying 'ants here - get yours free'. As for the goldfinches again rare occasional visitors and we would love to see more. They were very common in the NZ of my youth.

  9. We don't see as many since we granted the cats the freedom of the garden. It's not fair to encourage birds into the cats' larder . . . so they have to feed themselves these days - the birds, that is.

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  11. Great photos. We have woodpeckers that look a little like the ones in your photos.

    Ronel visiting for G:
    My Languishing TBR: G
    Giants of All Kinds


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