For such a large bird, the crow-sized Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius can be extremely difficult to see. Numerous claims over the years have tested the patience of the British Birds Rarities Committee but, despite an increase in the lowlands of northwest Europe, as yet no British records have been accepted. Birders wishing to see this magnificent beast must travel abroad and the nearest sites to Britain are in Northern France. Between 27th February and 1st March 2001, fellow Kent birders Pete Akers, Bob Price and myself took the car across to France with high hopes of enjoying Black Woodpeckers in the Forêt de Compiegne, some 45 miles north of Paris near the village of Pierrefonds.
Once in France, we travelled on the A1 autoroute towards Paris. You can of course travel on the 'gratis' free roads, but for speed and ease the autoroute is great. The cost for the toll roads was about £15 (both directions inclusive). Leave the autoroute at the Sortie 10 exit, then head towards Compiegne (follow that sign). As you get closer to Compiegne you will see road signs for Pierrefonds, which you must follow. When you come to a roundabout at the northern end of the forest, follow the Pierrefonds signs onto the D973. The D973 runs through the middle of the forest in a southerly direction towards Pierrefonds. Approximately half a mile along the D973 after leaving the roundabout, you will come across a minor paved road on the right; take the right turn here and continue down this road for a short distance (for 5 or 10 minutes) until you reach a crossroads (with a forestry unpaved track/road). This is the 'Nymphes' junction, beside which you will find a painted white signpost obelisk with Nymphes written on it. The guidebooks recommend a walk along the unpaved path on the right-hand side of the road (on the right as you face in the direction you have just driven) but are out-of-date: this area has since been cut down and is no longer suitable for Black Woodpeckers so I don't advocate the 'right' option!
You can either park and walk, or drive, left here along the passable but pot-holed unpaved forest/track, until you reach the next painted white signpost obelisk called Hamadryades (5 minutes by car). Park here and venture further into the forest on foot, walking in the same direction along the forests R't Du G'd Octagon, and after a maximum of 10 minutes you will be amongst very lofty Scots Pines and ancient Oaks, intermingled with coppice. You are now among the favoured habitat of the Black Woodpecker. During our last visit we were fortunate enough to enjoy 3 or 4 Black Woodpeckers at this beautiful location. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers can also be found here, and during the summer of 2000 I enjoyed Middle Spotted Woodpecker in this area as well! The Black Woodpecker's plaintive haunting whistle is a good indicator, allowing would-be seekers to track down their quarry.
It's not all about birds and nearby the village of Pierrefonds is very picturesque, featuring a 15th-century chateau that is truly splendid. If you fancy a bite to eat after tramping around in search of Black Woodpeckers, I would recommend trying the delicious food available at the economically priced La Flamenco cafe/restaurant (which is Spanish owned). Finally, as always when you are out and about birding, travel safe and be advised not to leave valuables in the car unattended!