The White-backed Woodpecker is the hardest resident woodpecker to find in Europe. Dendrocopos leucotos is absent from western Europe but is found in northern, central, and eastern Europe and across Asia as far east as Japan and Korea. It requires large stands of mature forest with lots of dead and dying trees, so managed forests are often unattractive to it. White-backed Woodpecker was one of the major target birds of the Bükk Hills portion of the trip to Hungary and though I would probably have preferred seeing what I now believe to be the mythical Black Woodpecker, the White-backed Woodpecker was a nice consolation prize. Not that seeing one came easily – in fact, the five of us who saw one were extremely fortunate to get the looks we did.
So how did I manage to lay eyes on the most difficult-to-see European woodpecker? It was simple. I visited the Hor Valley in Bükk National Park twice, took advantage of a sleeping Spaniard, the eyes of an Englishman, the driving of a South African, the knowledge of a Dutchman, and the persistence of a Belgian. Is everything clear now? No? Read on, dear reader, read on…
The first trip to the Hor Valley, which as a destination for finding woodpeckers didn’t cause a single joke to be cracked, was a planned morning-long excursion with the entire pack of people on the Swarovski Optik fam trip to Hungary. This means that there were nearly thirty of us making our way up the dirt track past long-abandoned quarries to get the area where the woodpeckers are normally found. There were butterflies and lizards and a variety of birds to distract us (like the Red-backed Shrike above) so by the time we got to where the woodpeckers are we basically had to turn around and leave in order to stay somewhat near our schedule. I didn’t really mind missing the woodpecker because I did see lots of other cool stuff, including my life Wood Warbler, but some folks were really bummed out at missing such a difficult-to-see bird.
High Brown Fritillary Fabriciana adippe
That night, Dale Forbes (hamming it up at right), the aforementioned South African, who in addition to having served as a Beat Writer here on 10,000 Birds is also in charge of getting naturalists to buy Swarovski products and was pretty much the central organizer of the fam trip, offered to take a rental car packed with birders back over the Hor Valley the next morning for those birders who really wanted to see the White-backed Woodpecker. There were five of us who wanted to go and only room for four besides Dale in the car. Being a marvelously magnanimous man* I volunteered to sit out the side trip. I was roundly applauded for my kindness** and Gerard Driessens, the Belgian; Martin Garner, the Englishman; Ricardo Pérez Rodríguez, the Spaniard; and Nils Van Duivendijk, the Dutchman; were all more than happy to leave me behind at the lovely Hotel Nomad while they searched for their elusive quarry.
The next morning I was up and out before five in the morning hiking my way uphill with the hope of coming across a Black Woodpecker. (This was before I realized that they were mythical.) I was happy to be out looking for birds, investigating all of the unfamiliar sounds and not feeling stupid by being around European birders who knew all of the birds that I was at least temporarily confused by. Then my iPhone started ringing, which was weird, because pretty much everyone I know knew I was in Hungary and who would be calling me at 11 PM in New York and 5 AM in Hungary? The number on the caller ID was weird as well and I almost didn’t answer because I had no idea who it was and AT&T charged me something like $1.59 / minute for calls while I was in Hungary. Fortunately, curiosity overcame thriftiness and I answered, only to hear Dale ask if I wanted to join the woodpecker search! It turned out that Ricardo had proven to be a deep sleeper and no one could rouse him so there was room in the car!
Twenty minutes or so later we were all spread out along the dirt road in the Hor Valley, straining our eyes and ears with the hope that we would see or hear Dendrocopos leucotos. Eventually a distant drumming was heard and we played some tape back to the bird. It responded before the short burst of tape was even done and drummed a couple of more times before stopping.
We searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched and searched. Then Martin said something, I can’t for the life of me remember what, exactly, and we were all making haste to get scopes lined up next to him and this is what we saw.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
Yes, I recognize that the image is hardly the most stellar of shots but in my defense the bird was extremely distant, way the heck up a hill, in difficult light, screened by branches, and it stayed for less than a minute. Honestly, I was more concerned with looking than with documenting.
It was an international celebration and then we stuck around for awhile until Gerard refound the bird. (Though, honestly, by now my memory is really kind of sketchy and it might have been Nils.) We watched it working over another fallen log, a typical behavior of the species – they really like to forage very low. Not only that but I managed to get more horrible photos!
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
After the second sighting we had to speed back to the Hotel Nomad to rejoin the rest of the fam trip. And over breakfast not a single one of us mentioned to Ricardo how awesome a bird the White-backed Woodpecker is.
Gerard, Martin, me, and Nils celebrating. Photo by Dale.
*This may or may not have had to do with the fact that pretty much wherever I was in Hungary I had a chance to see a lifer or two and it didn’t really matter to me if it was a specific woodpecker or not.
**No one had access to my thought processes or to the previous footnote.
My week-long trip to Hungary was a familiarity trip organized by the wonderful folks at Swarovski Optik to introduce their new line of superior spotting scopes, the ATX and the STX modular telescopes. We visited Hortobágy National Park, the Bükk Hills and places in between. Many thanks to Swarovski Optik for inviting me along and letting me experience both some awesome new optics and the natural wonders of the wonderful country of Hungary.