05 February 2013

A thousand volunteers needed to count the UK's most elusive bird

1,000 volunteers are being asked to count woodcock this summer in more than 1,000 woods across the country by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and British Trust for OrnithologyOne thousand keen-eyed volunteers are required to count one of the UKs most elusive birds in more than a thousand woods across the UK in the 2013 national woodcock survey being organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

The woodcock is a beautifully camouflaged bird, with a long slender bill, that can be identified by its very distinctive flight and call. Because of their secretive nature, there has long been uncertainty about the status of the breeding population of woodcock in this country. Until 1970 breeding woodcock were widespread across Britain and Ireland but in 2002 the woodcock was amber listed as it was believed that the species had suffered a 74 per cent decline in breeding numbers.

To determine whether these birds were under threat, the GWCT and BTO carried out the first ever national count of woodcock in 2003. This revealed that there were about 78,000 male woodcock in Britain.

Dr Andrew Hoodless, an ecologist with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and a world authority on woodcock said, "Our first national survey posed some interesting questions about abundance. In our repeat survey this year we need to identify why Wales and south west England support so few breeding woodcock and why areas such as Kent and Hertfordshire appear to hold rather low densities of woodcock despite having relatively large areas of woodland."

The repeat national survey of woodcock being conducted in May and June this year is calling for more than 1,000 volunteers to take part in this massive research effort to discover how the resident woodcock population has fared over the past ten years.

In total 1,500 randomly selected woodland survey sites will be monitored across England, Scotland and Wales with additional sites to be included for Ireland. Repeat counts from the original 2003 survey will be carried out on 805 sites, while 695 new sites have been added.

Although it is very hard to observe woodcock during the day, they are more conspicuous when displaying at dawn and dusk. The technique for counting woodcock involves standing in a wood at dusk and counting the males as they fly past making their distinctive roding or display calls in search of females, which consist of an unmistakeable series of three to five low croaks followed by a shrill whistle call.

Dr Hoodless said, "This country-wide survey will help us measure the change in the size of the breeding woodcock population since our first major count in 2003. This will help us produce new country population estimates and assess breeding distribution and abundance changes in detail. Woodcock have very specific habitat requirements in the breeding season and the survey will enable us to investigate how changes in woodland habitat and general land use over the past ten years have affected their numbers."

To participate in the Big National Woodcock Count, please visit www.bto.org/woodcock-survey, where all survey information can be downloaded including survey forms, details of survey sites and information on the counting method itself. There are also links from the GWCT website: www.gwct.org.uk.

For more information, please visit: www.gwct.org.uk/woodcocksurvey.


Photocaption: 1,000 volunteers are being asked to count woodcock this summer in more than 1,000 woods across the country by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and British Trust for Ornithology.


Notes to editors

The woodcock Scolopax rusticola is a secretive, cryptic wader evolved for a life spent in woodland and fields. In Britain we have a resident breeding population consisting of about 78,000 males and a similar number of females. Woodcock are most obvious in spring and summer, when the males perform their distinctive ‘roding’ displays at dawn and dusk when males are searching for females.

Woodcock depend on a diet of earthworms and other invertebrates, which are obtained with their long, sensitive bills. Their activity patterns through the year are determined by the trade-off between finding sufficient food and avoiding predation. Their cryptic plumage helps them remain inconspicuous during the daytime and their large eyes, placed high on the sides of the head give them near 360° vision for detecting potential dangers.

Migrants: In autumn and continuing through December and January, Britain and Ireland see a large influx of migrant woodcock escaping freezing weather in northern Europe. ‘Falls’ of woodcock are often most noticeable around the full moon in November, commonly referred to as the ‘Woodcock Moon’. As many as 700,000 to 1,200,000 migrant woodcock from Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic States and Russia may spend the winter with us.

Research: Compared to many other birds, we still know little about the woodcock’s behaviour and ecology. Learning more is important because the species is potentially susceptible to altered conditions resulting from climate change and habitat destruction and is widely hunted across Europe. Research from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is starting to unravel some of the secrets of the overwintering woodcock populations and recent satellite tracking of 11 woodcock migrating to their breeding grounds in Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic states was a revelation to scientists. For example, typically they can fly 600-1,000km in 24 hours, at an average speed of 40 km/hour. To follow the birds progress or to sponsor a woodcock visit the Woodcock Watch website: www.woodcockwatch.com

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife for the past 70 years. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats and we lobby for agricultural and conservation policies based on science. We employ 20 post-doctoral scientists and 40 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics.  We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies.   The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse. For Information, contact: Morag Walker – Head of Media, Telephone – 01425-652381 (direct 01425-651000) Mobile – 07736-124097    www.gwct.org.uk