Feel free to post questions or comments on this new blog about Birding in and around Barcelona and Catalonia, Spain. Although currently still in progress, I have uploaded Trip Reports up until November 2010... with videos and month-by-month 'quick look' summaries still to come. Stephen Christopher

Monday 16 August 2010

August in Navarra: the White-backed Woodpecker

This report is really for me to recall possibly the best moment of my birding year but of course feel free to read on.  There is a brief summary for Catalonia at the bottom of the page but...

...above is a photo of the SIERRA DE ABODI in NAVARRA, in the north of SPAIN.  Taking advantage of a trip to visit family 'up north', I took a responsibility-free 'my day', on 16th August, and headed up and out in search of a lifer!

Not much chance, I was told, at this time of year but with no options come high hopes... and anyway I always feel that, with parent birds no longer sitting and a peak in numbers arising from recently-fledged juveniles before they start to succumb to life's trials, summer birding has the odds in its favour, at least sometimes.

I'm not very good at focusing on target birds when I'm birding alone as I get too distracted by just about any other bird on offer but, driving through the photograph above, I resisted the temptation to give it the once over and, excited by the smell of mixed deciduous woodland the range and age of which I rarely see in Catalonia, I pressed on to my destination now just 20 km away, the Selva de Irati - and the White-backed Woodpecker.

As I kitted-up from the back of the car at the Hermita de la Virgen de las Nieves about 0800 a.m. I was welcomed by Black Redstart, (White-throated) Dipper and Nuthatch ... and then a Black Woodpecker's eerie tones pierced my left ear.  I turned instinctively but, no, too far to have any chance of seeing it - but a good start.

Capped and bincoculared and scoped and bagged, I turned to head off and almost immediately felt myself becoming frustrated by the plethora of forest tracks that all seemed to start or end at my feet.  'Take the track towards the Embalse,' I had been pre-advised by a local birder.  But which track is that?!!

'Woh, hang on a minute,' I told myself, 'you're on holiday, chill out' and, after forcing my self to relax with a fistful of chocolate-chip cookies and three cups of coffee (yes, I know, but they were small cups), during which time my ears and eyes were entertained by Blackcap, Goldcrest, Robin, Short-toed Treecreeper, Coal Tit and Grey Wagtail, I told my self it didn't matter and just stepped forward and followed my nose.  Ahh, it's good to have no responsibilities.

I knew next-to-nothing about White-backed Woodpecker before I started as, for various reasons, I'd barely had time to ask the Navarricos for location tips let alone read-up about the bird, and so I found my self scanning the areas where I might expect to see Great Spotted Woodpecker.  In doing this I came across Common Buzzard, Crested Tit, Chaffinch, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a party of the always impressive Eurasian Bullfinch (unlike in the UK, not a garden bird here in Spain).

After about ninety minutes I settled at a 'likely' spot for Black Woodpecker - space between the trees and a good supply of dead wood - and hoped another particular woodpecker would like it too.  Almost as soon as I noticed some typical Pica negra attention on some of the dead tree trunks, I heard a much louder version of the call that had earlier pierced my ears and quite fortuitously picked out a female Black Woodpecker as she landed, tree-side and in full view through a gap between two old oaks, about 10 metres away.  Fan-tastic.

With much intent, she immediately began to study the bark before her, rather strangely seeming to draw little imaginary pentangles in the air with the tip of her bill.  Between this, and angling and shifting her head, ears and the one white-eye that I could see, she repeated very deliberate short bouts of drumming.  As she seemed occupied by the bark's occupant I stealthily dared to set up my scope, at which point the red flame lighting only the back of her crown, indicating she was indeed a female, could be seen even more clearly.

Wrapped in her intentions for some time, I eventually became aware that a distinct woodpecker 'kick' was filtering into my brain from the woodland below, down the bank to my right.  I waited for it again, when I considered that it seemed somehow chunkier than a Great Spotted Woodpecker's call.  But I'd been told White-backs were very quiet at this time of year.  Well, in any case, I was sure I'd never heard such a sound before and, in the same moment, became suddenly super-excited and down-right scared at the prospect of ultimately not being able to locate it.  Oh why hadn't I followed my own rather obvious advice and learned its call before trying to track a new bird?

Leaving my scope behind, I did like the rat and the pied piper and followed it blindly, daring only one step between each 'kick'.  Two if I was feeling brave.  But, despite nervously scanning all the tree trunks available and re-scanning with some systematic composure, I could not find it, even despite its rather obvious close-proximity.  I became even more torn between excitement and fear, now totally convinced that its source was indeed a White-back as surely a Great Spotted Woodpecker would have revealed itself by now.

And then it struck me.  The floor!  And there it was.  How...beautiful.  How close.

A White-backed Woodpecker.  Every detail seemed to rush at me at once, perhaps inspired by the fear of it flying off.  But not a chance.  What a confiding bird this is.  Looking black-and-white like a Great Spotted Woodpecker, feeding on the ground like a Green Woodpecker but moving along with such unique mannerisms that, to a more experienced eye, it would have given away its identity without need to study its plumage.

Almost an hour went by before it worked its way just beyond comfortable watching, during which time it was joined briefly by a second bird, a black-crowned female.  This bird actually has a partially red cap and a more pinkish vent than is shown in the Collins field guide, so I am assuming it's a young male.  [Please forgive the awful photos by the way but between fighting a pledge to relax and enjoy the birds for the day and not take pictures and then discovering a dead digi-camera battery, it had moved some way off before it dawned on me that I could hold my tourist camera up to the scope's eyepiece].

Anyway, the White-backed Woodpeckers in the Spanish Pyrenees are of the sub-species lilfordi, that much I did know, so don't in fact have much of a white-back, not that I'm complaining.  Instead the pattern is more ladder-like or barred.

I've since learned that the population in general is under threat from logging, as they need a lot of dead wood, and also that, not surprisingly now, they spend much of their time feeding on or near to the ground.  Aside from a few forays onto tree trunks, mostly near the base, my two birds foraged almost entirely amongst the dead trunks, branches, twigs and leaves on the forest floor.

And by way of a demonstration of their lack of shyness, when two separate walkers eventually strode past, the White-backed Woodpecker remained unperturbed at the first intruder and only flew briefly to a nearby tree-trunk as the second strode past before returning to feed close to the footpath.

In contrast, the still-present Black Woodpecker, which I had also been keeping an eye on, flushed immediately from its new-found position at the first walker (via landing momentarily on a tree three metres away from me!) before finally flying off.

I finally headed out and home at about noon, after observing one of several Marsh Tits playing inside one of the Black Woodpecker holes and capitalising on one or two opportunities to compare Short-toed Treecreepers with the relatively white-bellied and more brown-backed Common Treecreeper.

I did stop off back at the Sierra de Abodi by the way and ate lunch in the company of, amongst others, Red Kite, Griffon Vulture, Red-billed Chough and Water Pipit.


An interesting local tour to the LLOBREGAT DELTA and THE GARRAF MASSIF on 5th August did throw up about ninety species, including a fine Eleanora's Falcon, perched on a hilltop tree before dropping down out of sight.

The Garraf also produced Bonelli's Eagle, Black Wheatear, Short-toed Eagle, Blue Rock Thrush, Dartford Warbler, European Shag, Turtle Dove, Pallid Swift, Alpine Swift, Red-rumped Swallow and Rock Sparrow.

Other highlights were a stunning summer-plumage Black-necked Grebe and an early returning Common Kingfisher at Llobregat as well as the usual gulls, terns, herons, shorebirds and warblers.  Migrant Pied Flycatcher, Western Bonelli's Warbler and Willow Warbler joined the local Penduline Tit and Common Waxbill.

"Thanks very much for a very rewarding day out.  I admired your zeal and dedication and learned a lot about birding in the Garraf region.
The Pallid Swifts, Peregrine, Blue Rock Thrush and Black Wheatear stood out and so did the Llobregat Delta with the Bee-eaters, Hoopoe and the various raptors."

Mark Bovens, Holland