17 Nov, 2014
It's that time of year again - there's a chill in the air and the days are getting noticeably shorter. Yes, it's time to deploy that favourite tool beloved of wildlife photographer's everywhere: the woodpecker stick.
Nature photographers are a devious bunch. We use all sorts of devices to trick our subjects into coming out into the open where we can photograph them in a clutter-free nicely lit area. The woodpecker stick is one such tool. Great Spotted Woodpeckers are rather partial to peanuts and lard. Especially when natural food sources are low in winter. As food supplies dwindle, they'll make forays into open areas in search of things to eat. Peanut feeders are a great lure, but don't make a very attractive setting for photos. Enter the woodpecker stick.
This is a branch or log in which the cunning photographer has drilled a line of holes. Peanuts and lard are inserted into the holes (make sure they're pushed right in so that nothing sticks out). The woodpecker stick is then hung from a convenient tree. It's best to drill the holes at an angle rather than straight into the wood - that way, the peanuts don't fall straight back out when you hang the stick up. You can also use a stand instead of hanging the stick - Christmas tree stands work pretty well (you may need to hold them in place with tent pegs or sand bags if your stick is of the large / heavy variety). If you use a stand, it's best to set it up fairly near a tree - woodpeckers like a bit of nearby cover. You'll need to place the stick so that you can't quite see the holes from the place you intend to photograph from. The other thing to think about when you place your stick is the background. If you want a nice soft background, you'll need to arrange things so that there is nothing directly behind the stick but also make sure that there's a nice clump of trees or other foliage in the distance that totally fills the area of the image when you look through the viewfinder.
You'll almost certainly have to leave your stick in place for a few days (or even weeks, depending on how many woodpeckers there are in the vicinity of your chosen site) before you see and woodpeckers. Remember to keep the stick filled with peanuts on a daily basis. If nothing has removed the nuts after a few days, replace them with new ones to avoid inadvertently poisoning your subjects with mouldy nuts. I find hanging a peanut feeder in the nearest tree helps attract the woodpeckers. Once they find the stick, you can remove the feeder.
Woodpeckers are pretty shy. You'll need to have some sort of hide in place to conceal yourself from them. Again, this needs to be in place for a while so that the birds become used to it.
What you use to make your woodpecker stick is largely a matter of taste. I've used all sorts of logs and branches. Sometimes I use something man-made for variety, like the old fence post in the image below. Here, peanuts are 'glued' to the inside of the hollow using lard.
With record numbers of birds breeding this summer, food competition is likely to be fierce as the winter takes hold. It's the ideal time to give a woodpecker stick a try.
(Footnote: sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that none of the pictures in this blog post were taken with my trusty Canon 1DX. I've found that Great Spotted Woodpeckers can be extremely sensitive to noise, and the *LOUD* 1DX shutter clunk often scare them away. The excellent silent mode on the Canon 5D Mark III is much more effective).