Black Woodpecker, Drycopus martius

I hesitate to write this, but I can only report what I saw. One day during the summer of 2004 I was walking down a track in the wood behind the house. It was probably early July as at the time I was concentrating on a family of Hobbies which had just turned up in that part of the wood. I disturbed a pair of dark birds that were on or next to a Wood Ant hill immediately to the left of the track. When I was about 20 yards away the birds, which I hadn't seen until that moment, flew together to a point quite high (at least 30 ft) in a tree in a stand of Scots Pines. Briefly I saw one quite distinctly perched on the side of the trunk, exactly like a woodpecker. It was maybe 60-70 feet away. I tried to get binoculars on them, but by the time I found the tree they'd gone.

When I returned to the house after recording the Hobbies I turned to the Collins Guide to identify the birds. I knew I was looking for a dark woodpecker, but I had no idea of the significance of what I'd seen! There was, of course, only the Black Woodpecker, which isn't supposed to have reached Britain yet. It was another year at least before I realised that.

What else could these birds have been? Blackbirds, obviously. But Blackbirds don't behave like these two did. There are many around, and they usually flit off into low scrub cover, not high up into a Scots Pine. Blackbirds don't perch vertically on the side of a trunk. Maybe a Green Woodpecker? The light was very good at the time, and even in quite low-light conditions Green Woodpeckers still appear light-coloured. It was some time around the middle of the day, though I don't recall if it was sunny. A Great Spotted Woodpecker would have been too small to fit the bill. And a Crow, with its larger size and quite different way of flying from these two, is out of the question.

I didn't hear the birds call at the time and we've never heard a Black Woodpecker call that year or since. We have of course learnt the very distinctive calls just in case!

So, a tentative, possible sighting. I record it here in case there is a confirmed sighting some time in the future, when I shall be able to believe myself. But who's to say that an area that attracts Hoopoes, Nightjars, Turtle Doves and Hobbies may not have something that briefly detained a couple of transiting Black Woodpeckers back in July 2004. Our area is, after all, not so far from France. On certain routes across the channel it would offer the first large areas of woodland and forest a long-distance traveller would find. Bedgebury Pinetum is the next stop.

A brief comment taken from The Independent on the imminent arrival of this bird in England here. That was written eight years ago.

More on British sightings from BirdForum (

"Vagrants have possibly reached Britain but despite now having been reported more than 80 times there are no accepted records. The English Channel does not seem to be an insurmountable barrier for this species as it has colonised the Danish island of Bornholm which lies a similar distance from the mainland as that between northern France and Kent."

That's remakarble -- 80 reported sightings and none verifiable. Even if only 10% of the sightings were valid, that would be around 10 single birds or pairs hopping around. Their calls are extremely distinctive and would be recognised as those of a strange bird by anyone who was familiar with bird calls in their area. I suppose the problem is that for an acceptable record a verifiable photo or sound recording has to be made, and not everyone wanders around the countryside with a long-lens camera or sound equipment at the ready! Anyway, with 80 UK reports I don't feel quite so out on a limb . . .


Hoopoe, Upupa epops

A Hoopoe (or Hoopoe pair) was seen in the area some years ago, with several sightings by more than one person. However, they must have decided that our little patch was not for them. What a shame, as I remember these smallish but spectacular birds well from car trips between England and Iran. They were mainly in the remoter parts of central and eastern Turkey, and it would be wonderful to see them again . . in our thoroughly domestic corner of England. One thing we're not short of is ants! One day I'll get more details of these sightings and put them up here.

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