The cryptically plumaged Wryneck is an aberrant woodpecker, spending much of its time on the ground hunting for its principal food, ants. It is slightly smaller than a thrush with a longish tail, giving it a rather shrike-like ‘jizz’ in flight.
Most members of the woodpecker tribe are sedentary but the Wryneck is a long-distance migrant, reaching the sub-tropics in winter. Its breeding range stretches from Mediterranean latitudes north and east to Lapland and Russia. In Portugal it is therefore mainly a summer visitor and a widespread breeder, although nowhere common. It prefers open mixed woodland but is also attracted to orchards and olive groves. Most pairs nest in holes in trees, often those made by other woodpeckers. Where these are in short supply, cavities in abandoned buildings or nest-boxes are sometimes used.
Wryneck (Jynx torquilla)
In recent years more have been overwintering in the south of Iberia, including the Algarve, probably as a result of the year-round availability of the introduced Argentine Fire-Ant. At this season, and on migration, they can also occur in low scrub, often in the vicinity of fresh water. I noticed in Greece they seemed to be present wherever tamarisks grew.
Although well camouflaged by their beautifully vermiculated plumage in browns and greys, the presence of Wrynecks is quite easily detected by the loud advertising call - a rather plaintive ringing ‘kwee - kwee - kwee -kwee- kwee’, usually delivered at a slowish pace.
In most areas Wryneck populations appear to be fairly stable. Sadly, this was not the case in southern Britain where the species ceased to breed in the 1970s. Curiously, at around the same time, there were the first breeding records from the Scottish Highlands, possibly resulting from Scandinavia-bound birds being accidentally diverted across the North Sea by spring easterlies.
The Wryneck has only one close relative - the even more attractive Red-breasted Wryneck, which occurs only in eastern Africa. I was fortunate to see this gem in the highlands of Ethiopia.