March

Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

WoodcockThe Woodcock is quite a large, thick set bird that is a member of the Sandpiper family, having a very long tapered bill but relatively short legs; it is adapted to living in woodland and surrounding farmland and has the most wonderfully camouflaged plumage which makes it virtually impossible to see among fallen leaves on the woodland floor. Because it is largely nocturnal, we know very little about this strange species, other than the fact that the resident population is greatly increased by over-wintering birds from the continent.

The aim of the latest GWCT research project is to track the birds carrying geolocators to their breeding grounds across Scandinavia and Russia to help provide valuable information. We first of all have to catch these elusive birds, and so we have had to devise a method of catching them!

We go out a couple of hours or so after dark, allowing time for the birds to have flown out to their feeding grounds and to have had a meal of worms. How we catch the Woodcock is to walk across a field scanning the ground with a high powered lamp until the light catches the bird’s eye and you see the “glint”. Keeping the beam directly on the bird, we slowly move in with a large net on a long handle until we are near enough to bring the net down onto the bird.

This is not always easy! When I joined Andrew Hoodless (Woodcock researcher), one field of oil seed rape, situated directly behind a housing estate, had a total of eleven woodcock, numerous skylark, partridge, meadow pipit and around ten hares in it. It was strange watching the people in their houses, going about their evening chores, with almost certainly no idea that all these creatures were spending the night just a stone’s throw away. All eleven woodcock evaded our nets, many lifting up into the night sky a second or so before we brought the net down! We were, however, successful a little later on catching three beautiful woodcock. It was a thrill to see these birds so close up, as up until now they have always been just a “fleeting shadow” as they jinked away through the woodland trees.

On catching a woodcock, as well as fitting the geolocator, we also take a feather sample, as the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford University has kindly given us access to their laboratories. Their equipment is now so sensitive that we will be able to combust the tip of a feather and analyse the atoms, which enables us to tell not only which country they have come from, but often which region within that country. These facts will form a vital part of the jigsaw we need to enable us to conserve woodcock, not just in this country but in their breeding grounds as well.

The autumn migration provides an amazing spectacle as some 740,000 woodcock migrate to the UK in small flocks, landing on our eastern coastline, from Aberdeen to Folkestone. Migrants usually start arriving during the second week of October. Literature suggests that large falls often occur around the time of the full moon in late October and particularly in November, the latter being regarded as 'the woodcock moon'.

As I finally tucked into my bed, I felt very privileged to have had this glimpse into the nocturnal lives of such a mysterious bird.

Peter Thompson
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