BTO: Wrynecks are just passing through

PASSING THROUGH: A wryneck. Picture by Jill Pakenham/BTO ANL-141209-111734001
PASSING THROUGH: A wryneck. Picture by Jill Pakenham/BTO ANL-141209-111734001
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You can tell that summer is slowly slipping into autumn by the presence of the first passage migrants, birds returning south now that the breeding season is over for another year.

While many of these individuals go unnoticed because they belong to species that also breed here, others attract the attentions of birdwatchers because of their rarity.

One of these ‘passage visitors’ is the wryneck, a small and rather unusual relative of the woodpeckers. This delightful little bird no longer breeds in Britain but small numbers put in an appearance during spring and autumn. Most reports come from the eastern half of Britain, with the dune systems and nearby garden lawns of coastal Suffolk often favoured during autumn passage. The wryneck was once a common breeding bird across much of England but numbers began to decline from the early 1800s, the breeding range progressively contracting towards the south-east corner of the country. These losses were part of a wider decline seen over much of Western Europe, the causes of which remain unknown.

The wryneck feeds on ants taken from their nests, hence the association with short turf and garden lawns, and the bird uses its long, glutinous tongue to good effect as it probes the galleries and passages of an ant nest that it has broken open with its short, chisel-like bill. The wryneck’s small size may surprise those seeing the bird for the first time – it is only a little bigger than a chaffinch – and the patterning of the plumage and unusual posturing sometimes seen both add to the bird’s appeal. Nesting wrynecks, threatened by a potential predator, may tilt their head and hiss like a snake in an attempt to scare the predator away.

This autumn seems to have been a good one so far for visiting wrynecks, with a larger than usual number of individuals logged through BirdTrack (, a free online recording tool used by birdwatchers to keep track of what they have seen. The information collected is also used by the BTO to study bird movements and distributions, and records also filter down to the County Bird Recorders who collate the reports of birds within individual counties. It is amazing to think that some of the wrynecks currently in the county will soon be on their wintering grounds in Africa, where they remain until the spring return, which sees the first birds back here during April.

Autumn passage will continue for a few more weeks, so it is well worth keeping an eye on the weather forecast for winds from the east that may drift a few wrynecks and other passage migrants across the North Sea and onto the Suffolk coast. While the wryneck remains an uncommon visitor it is still common enough to give you a fighting chance of finding one for yourself. Who knows, one may even turn up on your garden lawn!