Zoom – Kalmthoutse Heide, Belgium – 23rd & 24th Mar

Black Woodpecker being one of the few birds resident in Belgium but not Britain, I have for years wanted to visit the area north and east of Antwerp where they are found. My attempts at researching this trip also produced references to Middle Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpecker, though I suspected these were real scarcities. My base for the two days was the excellent Klokkenhof Hotel in Brasschaat, where I secured a last minute rate.

The most promising looking site was the cross-border (with Holland) nature reserve of Zoom – Kalmthoutse Heide. It’s page on Holland.com says all Belgium’s Woodpeckers may be found here, but on enquiring at the on-site education centre I was told the only new one I was likely to see was Black. This was no surprise: had the tourist site authors heard of the other two on my wish list I wondered?

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Z-KH is a 10,000 acre area of dry and wet heathland, inland dunes, pools and coniferous forests (pictured above), lying north-west of the town of Kalmthout. The education centre staff recommended two “hot spots” where Black Woodpecker might be found, stressing that the birds favour areas with burned and fallen trees. I checked out both of these on Monday morning without success.

Then I recognised a loud call that had been mimicked to me coming from a wooded area about 500 metres from the centre. As I walked towards the sound my first Black Woodpecker flew out of those woods and towards the place where I had just been. A little later I heard probably the same bird drumming from that location. So I had gained a flight view and now had two more half days in which to find a perched bird.

Here’s what I hoped to see © rights of owners reserved. The right hand bird is a female.

Crested Tit and Treecreeper are also resident here. My best view of the former was actually in the car park. I wasn’t able to catch one of the latter to measure the hind claw, but hoped I might have seen Short-toed Treecreeper since both varieties are found in Belgium. Later on Monday afternoon I heard another Black Woodpecker drumming from some distance away, the sound continuing for considerably longer than a Great Spot and having a larger more resonant tone. Both the drumming and call are audible at up to 4km distance.

Having covered only a very small area of the reserve on these two visits, I walked for some way further in when I returned on Tuesday morning. The more open areas held large numbers of Larks and Pipits, and in particular the liquid song of Woodlark was a frequent back drop. Every so often one of the last-named would proclaim itself from an exposed song perch, in what Collins Bird Guide describes as “sweet but melancholy notes”. But I was not to see another Black Woodpecker either perched or in flight, though I did hear what must have been another one calling on Tuesday morning.

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The weather was cool and sunny throughout the two days of my visit, enabling me to fully appreciate the subtle beauty of this place. So yes there are Black Woodpecker here though I suspect not large numbers, and there is a vast amount of habitat in which to search for them. Discovering a nest site then staking it out in the breeding season would probably be the best strategy for observing and photographing these birds. If I can find a Belgian photographers’ network then perhaps I might come back here one day.

I returned to blighty thinking it would be worth spending more time in both the locations of this trip. The two additions took my European life list to 390 birds.

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