Another business trip, this time to Bergen, gave me the chance to visit this site in central Norway within reasonable reach of Bergen. It is reputed to be good for both White-backed and Grey-headed Woodpecker as described by Phil Benstead in Birding World a few years back.
Last year, his other Norwegian site proved successful for me for Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay, so it seemed well worth some effort to try for the woodpeckers. However, the best month for Woodpeckers is apparently April, when they are drumming and the leaves have yet to come out. So, I was not wildy optimistic over my chances of connecting with these two difficult species. To see how successful I was, read on!
Laerdal (or Laerdalsoyri) is in splendid, scenic Fjord country, about 200km from Bergen, reachable in about 3 hrs driving along the relatively new E16 Bergen/Oslo road, which features a 25km tunnel, just before reaching Laerdal.
Again Avis provided a reasonably priced hire car, which I picked up in the centre of Bergen and returned on to the airport (no extra charge). Cost for four days was a not unreasonable c. GBP150.
In Bergen, the weather had been very mixed, and was atrocious during my drive to Laerdal - strong winds and heavy rain. Fortunately, however, it cleared up when in Laerdal, and although there was some rain it was mostly manageable showers, not heavy or prolonged. Definitely cooler than England, though, especially higher up. No biting insects were experienced this early in the season.
I would recommend visitors to get hold of a 1:50,000 series map of the area. Two are available, one is sheet number 353, named Laerdalsoyri. The other is apparently a newer series covering a larger area, named Laerdal - sheet number 2529. Several weeks in advance of my trip, I ordered one from Stanfords, but it didn't arrive. However, I managed to find sheet 353 in the Galleriet shopping centre in central Bergen (lowest, basement level). The newer map should be obtainable from the Tourist Information Centre in Laerdal itself, I was told.
Thursday 26 May
I departed Bergen around 12 noon, arriving at Laerdal shortly after 3pm. The appalling weather en-route had thankfully abated by the time I arrived, so my first "attack" on White-backed Woodpecker territory started with the very steep path to Asen, just north of Laerdal. This is described by Benstead as "good for White-backed".
To reach this path, follow the side-road signed to the hospital, over the river and then turn left. At the end of this road are some houses, and just before them there is a sign for the path on the right. With the river in full spate, the lower parts of the path were very difficult to negotiate without getting wet. (The path can also be accessed without crossing water, by going up the road a little further, and then behind the houses, but to do so you need to more or less walk through their gardens).
On this path, shortly, there is a fork - the left hand one is signed to Hedler and the right to Asen. (The Hedler path is not marked on the 1:50,000 map, but Benstead says it is also good for W-B Woodpecker. This seems surprising as Benstead's map shows that it stays low, and eventually reaches route 5 north of the road bridge, just before it enters the tunnel. However, I didn't try it, so he could be right - if so it would provide a minimal effort way of finding the woodpecker!).
The path I followed towards Asen was extremely steep, and there was no sign or sound of anything remotely like a W-B woodpecker. Closest was a distant Green Woodpecker. There was, however, some compensation in the form of a nice flock of smart, summer plumage Brambling, a Crested Tit and some Spotted Flycatchers. Also splendid views of the valley below and a dramatic and very full waterfall to the side. The woods were mainly deciduous lower down, then largely coniferous higher up. I kept going for an arduous c. 1.5 hrs, but then decided it was time to head back down, somewhat disappointed. I was maybe half way to Asen by this time. After descending, I found an excellent male Whinchat and some Twite, in the valley fields.
At the hotel, I had a short meeting with Einar Trulssen - a local I had found by trawling the web for bird information on the Laerdal area (there isn't much!). He had very kindly offered to meet me, and point me in the direction of good woodpecker sites. Einar turned out to be mainly a hunter/fisherman but with a useful side interest in birds. He had found a Three-toed Woodpecker a few weeks earlier above Fodnes (and had sent me a picture to prove it!). He also had various other suggestions, but the Fodnes path sounded the most promising. He is also happy for other birders to contact him if they are visiting the area.
Friday 27 May
Following Einar's recommendation, Friday morning saw me driving the short distance north from Laerdal, along route 5, to park at the Fodnes ferry terminal. For a detailed description of the route I followed, click here. Walking along the track by the shore from here, I found a group of Gulls, one of which was an Iceland.
Thereafter the path climbed quite steeply through mainly pine forest, with low bird density. A singing Redstart on the top of a tree was about the only notable bird. However shortly after "Olavskjelda", I heard some Woodpecker calls which sounded a bit like Great Spotted, but not the same. I quickly moved towards them, but they were being uncooperative, and all I managed was a fleeting distant flight view. They then vanished, and did not reappear after at least half an hour of waiting.
So, I pressed on up the path, which rejoined the ridge giving impressive views on the mountains and fjord below. But the higher I went, the lower the bird density, with only a Tree Pipit to note. When the going got even steeper, with no obvious end point in sight, I decided to return for another attack on the area which had the Woodpeckers earlier.
Looking down from the main track, I noticed a feint unmarked path which appeared to go off to the right, contouring along the mountain side, at what seemed a promising elevation. After only about 10mins along this, I started hearing Woodpecker calls again, and then managed some views with bins. Initially it was difficult to get a clear view, but even though my hands were shaking somewhat(!), I began to realise this could not be a Great Spotted. It had pale pink under tail coverts, not bright red, and the wings were barred not spotted. When I saw the streaked flanks and the incomplete black band on the head side, I knew I had a WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER!! Wow! This bird was a female, but the male, which looks even better with its bright red cape, soon appeared. Both were quite approachable, even allowing a record shot with the Nikon CP4500, hand held without 'scope! When I'd seen them well, I quickly decided this was the best European woodpecker by far!
After several minutes of following the male, I decided it was best to retreat as they might have a nest in the area. Well worth the 4.5 hrs since the start of the walk! This area was mainly pine, but there were some mature deciduous trees as well. The advantage of this area was that the terrain was not too steep, which allows you to move off the path relatively easily (unlike the Asen track of yesterday). Also, less effort is needed to get to this site - just over an hour from the car and less steep up!
After this highlight, the rest of the day (& visit) was a bit of anti-climax. The track back down to the car was fairly quiet with nothing much further to report, apart from a single Crested Tit.
I then tried driving up the "Snow Road" which goes over the mountains to Aurland, reaching well over 1000m at its high point. However, in late May, this road was still firmly closed by snow. Driving up was like going back in season - the fresh leaves at sea level gave way to willow scrub further up with hardly any buds showing. Eventually, the road simply disappeared into heavy snow! Up here it was pretty cold and wintry, but even so there were some mildly interesting birds - a couple of summer plumage northen Golden Plover on the road(!), and Redwing in the bushes, right up at the snow level. Later in the season, when fully open, this road might be well worth exploring for upland species, but not in late May.
Afterwards, I did a little birding on the "beach" at Laerdal. According to Einar, this has turned up some good birds, and is worth a look. Nothing special today, though, although there were some Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser and migrant Wheatear around.
Friday 27 May
Although I was already more or less awake, the sound of the Koreans in the next room singing loudly before 6am, was not the best start to the day! With only the morning for birding, I decided to try the other trail described by Benstead as good for Grey-headed Woodpecker. This was to Oftedalen. This path is a bit tricky to find. From the hospital, drive across the river, take the first left into a group of houses, then left again at a fork (I think). Shortly before the end of this road is a convenient parking area, marked with a blue P sign, on the right. From here walk to the end of the road, go through a wooden gate, and turn right. A display board and sign marks the start, with even a leaflet describing the trail.
Once again this path went up steeply for a long way! This time, though, the trees were nearly all deciduous, and much more "birdy" than the pine forests. The place was alive with bird song - Willow Warblers mainly, but also Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap and Pied Flycatcher etc. There were also at least 2 grey Northen Willow Tits. But not a hint of a Grey-headed Woodpecker - only a distant Green again.
After about 1.5 hrs, I had reached over 500m, and the path levelled off, but it was time to turn round and return for the drive back to Bergen and my return flight. According to my information, Grey-headed Woodpecker is to be found mainly in coniferous forest, not deciduous, so the path as far as I went didn't seem at all promising. Maybe this path goes through pines further up, but it would be a long haul there and back. Also, for the energetic, Einar mentioned a friend who had seen Three-Toed Woodpecker on this trail - again presumably further on, in coniferous woods.
For an extended version of this trip report, with maps, pictures and a detailed description of how to find the White Backed Woodpecker site see Stephen Burch's Birding Website