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I have spotted a variant great spotted woodpecker in my garden. Could it be a hybrid?

Sent in by Kate MacGlashan, Nairn, Highland

Within the woodpecker family we have four species which are native to the UK. The Great spotted woodpecker and green woodpecker are common breeders. The lesser spotted woodpecker is an increasingly uncommon breeder. The wryneck is a former breeder, which now only occurs as a scarce, annual passage migrant.

Great spotted woodpeckers are by far and away the most common species of the four with an estimated 44,000 breeding pairs distributed across the whole UK.

To the trained eye it is easy to distinguish between adult great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers.

Great spotted woodpeckers are considerably larger birds (thrush-sized) than lesser spotted woodpeckers, which are about the size of a house sparrow.

Great spotted woodpeckers have large white 'shoulder' patches. The female great spotted woodpecker has no red on its head at all and the male just has a small red aptch on the back of its head.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers always have a complete red cap and lack the white shoulder patch.

It can be more problematic when differentiating between juvenile great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers.

Juvenile great spotted woodpeckers have the same red cap on the head as an adult lesser spotted woodpecker and still have white 'shoulder patches'. This means that they are sometimes thought to be hybrids of the two species.

The moult from juvenile to adult plumage can be rather slow and protracted and the full adult plumage won't be fully apparent until March - April the following year.

Perhaps the key thing to note in terms of distinguishing between great spotted and lesser spotted woodpeckers at any life stage is that great spotted woodpeckers  have a red flush of colour underneath their tails. This is not present on any of our other native woodpeckers.

Additionally, lesser spotted woodpeckers are far less common with an estimated 2,500 breeding pairs mainly concentrated to Southern England. It would certainly be very rare to see one as far north as Inverness.

Please see the following web page for more information regarding UK woodpecker species: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/families/woodpeckers.asp

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