While temperatures plummet in Russia to minus 19oc and below, thousands of migrating woodcock are starting to head for warmer wintering sites in the UK. As these small wader birds battle with bad weather and tough environmental conditions during their long, perilous flights, British scientists from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) are monitoring the heart-stopping progress of 24 birds by using advanced satellite technology.
For the first time, the research is showing that woodcock migration consists of a series of very long and fast flight of between 600 to 1,000 km (375-690 miles), broken up by stops en route typically lasting 7 to 15 days. Flight speeds are averaging about 19 mph but can reach speeds of 58 mph. These are incredible feats for birds weighing just 346 gms or less.
Two birds in particular, Crugith and Lanyon, who were satellite tagged by researchers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust in Cornwall earlier this year, are now starting to transmit clear signals to the dedicated Woodcock Watch website – www.woodcockwatch.com which is now being viewed by thousands of sponsors and enthusiasts across the globe.
Crugith, who is currently resting in Berkatel in Germany, has already flown more than 12,430 km this year and it is likely that if he survives subsequent migrations he could fly in the region of more than 35,000 km in his lifetime.
The aim of this ground-breaking research is to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding the elusive woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). GWCT scientists are working on the very edges of technology by using tiny solar powered satellite transmitters attached to the birds to record their extraordinary migration routes and to learn more about their habits, threats and the conservation issues facing this secretive amber-listed species.
Dr Andrew Hoodless from the GWCT, who is a world authority on woodcock, explains the significance of this research, “We have tagged birds at six sites across the UK – from Cornwall and Norfolk to West Wales, the North of England, Scotland and Ireland. One of the first birds to be tracked last year called Monkey has astonished us with his achievements - flying to central Siberia to breed and then back to the UK to overwinter and repeating his spring migration to Siberia again this year. We estimate that he has now flown at least 38,000 kilometres (23,750 miles) during his lifetime.
“This year Monkey was joined in Siberia by two more of our satellite tagged birds. Clearly, Siberia is an important breeding area for some of the woodcock that winter in Britain, a fact that we would never have discovered without satellite tracking. We have also learned that the woodcock are extremely faithful to both their wintering and breeding grounds, returning to the same sites year after year and, on occasions, even to the same field in winter. This is an incredible feat for such small birds.”
Andrew Hoodless continues, “It is already apparent that the migrating birds are late this winter because the weather has been quite mild in continental Europe until recently, but we now see large numbers arriving. Finding out this kind of information through our project is important and will help inform international conservation policies as well as being of huge fascination to us all.”
To view the latest movements of the satellite-tracked birds and to follow their incredible migration flights, visit: www.woodcock watch.com. Alternatively, keep track on the comings and goings of the migrating birds and the activities of the researchers on the regular blog: www.woodcockwatch.com/blog.php
The GWCT is encouraging more people to get involved in this project by sponsoring a satellite-tracked woodcock for £36 a year. Sponsors receive a sponsorship pack and support of this project will help to cover the cost of downloading data from a satellite as well as helping to fund the cost of buying the tracking devices, which cost £3,000 each. To sponsor a bird email: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 01425 652381
Photocaption: Apart from providing gripping entertainment for all those keen to watch the progress of the plucky woodcock (including Crugith, pictured) in almost ‘real-time’ on the website (www.woodcockwatch.com), the GWCT satellite tracking project is providing fascinating and previously unknown data on the behaviour of these mysterious birds.
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 population. 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 since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats and we lobby for agricultural and conservation policies based on science. We employ 14 post-doctoral scientists and 50 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