At the end of out garden we have – or had until last week – four trees. All were planted by us and all have taken well to the rather clay-rich soil. There’s a copper beach, an amelanchier, an apple tree (cookers) and until a few days ago, a pretty silver poplar.

The poplar, being soft wood, started to attract great spotted woodpeckers. After a couple of years chiselling into the trunk without much enthusiasm, they decided to press ahead and build No 1, The Poplars. The following year, they hatched and raised a brood, and I recorded their progression from tiny almost inaudible peeps to full-bloodied yelling for food. They ran both parents ragged with their insatiable demands. We were quite pleased when eventually they left the nest and peace was restored.

And so it went, first with an old hole being cleaned out frantically to make the nursery; then another hole was started higher up. Then, two years ago, we had our bienniel pollarding done, and done badly. Without a terminal ‘knuckle’ for the new growth to sprout from the following spring, the tree began to die back. 

By last summer, the foliage was pitiful – the tree was more dead than alive. The leaves were withered and crispy. Before the end of July, they had all blown off. Inevitably the tree had to come down and we arranged to have it done this month.

Which brings to us 2019, with a male woodpecker rushing up and down the trunk to find a perfect spot to drill a hole. We watched as he went about his work, spraying shards of wood-chip over a wide area. There was a sad franticness about it – especially as we knew that in a couple of weeks the tree would be gone.

After the crime scene had been cleaned up once the tree had been felled, the woodpecker came back and seemed genuinely puzzled (as well he might). He appeared to be looking for his vanished home. We watched him try half-heartedly on the other trees. They can’t have suited him – he flew away and we haven’t seen (or heard) him since.

As these photos show, the death of the tree  may not have been entirely due to bad pollarding; the trunk itself had had its core removed at two or three levels. As you can see, we kept a souvenir cavity from the woodpecker days.

The woodpecker in happier times


  1. What a pity! Sad to see you lost your tree and the woodpecker his home. Love the souvenir you kept! 🙂 Thank you for sharing your precious memories and lovely images. We did some serious pollarding on our fig tree two years ago and it’s still struggling. Last summer our we had to cut down our Eucalyptus tree as it was a treat to the house. It was one of the tallest trees in Cley and I loved it. Funny how attached one get to trees and bushes in the garden.

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  2. All good things come to an end and I am sure your woodpecker will find a new home. Do you think he contributed to the demise of the tree? We have poplars at the bottom of the garden and I have heard woodpeckers at a distance but none have taken up residence, I would like to watch them. Do you think the remaining hole could be converted into a birdhouse? Amelia

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    1. I think the terrible pollarding (= slicing right through the main branches) did for it. Trees usually manage to survive even when quite hollow. That said, we were surprised how much wood had been pecked out. Birdhouse is a great idea. Maybe a tile at a slight angle for a hat? And to tempt smaller birds, one of those metal hole-size plates. Good thought, Amelia!


      1. Atavistic is part of the feeling, the stirring up of a deeply held memory of times long past perhaps, but there is more. I have heard it described as ecological grief which is more a feeling of loss of nature during the span of one person’s life.

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