I am relatively new to birdwatching – I caught the bug from my parents-in-law a few years ago. That said, I have taken to it like a duck to water (excuse the pun), and now have to be reined in by my husband to stop me boring the normal people. While I love my new hobby, it does have its disadvantages. For one, I have infuriated most of the drivers in Wiltshire, either slamming on the brakes as I see something fly over, or inching along at snail’s pace, peering out of the window and trying to follow a bird.
Secondly, I cannot go anywhere without first researching the local bird population, the likelihood of seeing each species, and the best spots to see each bird and at which time of year. For example, my first big trip after taking up birdwatching was to Abisko National Park in Sweden, nominally to see the Northern Lights. I made a list of birds found in the area in Winter, and got horribly over-excited about what I might see. Can you guess how many species I saw? Three. Not three new species, three total. And do you know how I knew this new hobby was going to stick? I was thrilled with that total. Willow tit, golden eagle, arctic redpoll. I could not have been more excited (unless I had seen the ptarmigan claimed by a group travelling with us – that may have pushed me over the edge). Oh, and we did see the Northern Lights. They were spectacular, and hearing them was a surreal and wonderful experience. But anyway, back to the birds…
Last week I had another opportunity to test my enthusiasm for this new found interest. I was driving back to the practice after a farm visit, down a narrow country lane, when two birds flew out of one field, across the road in front of me and over the hedge. True to form, I slammed on the brakes, reached for my camera and peered out of the window: nothing doing. I pulled onto the verge and hopped out, then snuck along the hedgerow. Suddenly the pair broke out of the field, flew over my head and went back to where they came from, leaving me open-mouthed and frantically checking my camera to see if I’d caught them. This is what I had:
Not going to win Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I think you’ll agree, but it was just enough for me to think I might be able to identify it. After half an hour with the photo on a big monitor, the RSPB and Collins Guides to British Birds and a significant amount of Google image searching, I had an ID: woodcock. The flight pattern, the behaviour, the habitat, colouring, size – everything said woodcock, and I was delighted.
Woodcock is a first for me and my bird list, and this is perhaps not surprising as they are quiet, shy birds, mainly nocturnal, extremely well-camouflaged and not overly common. They are listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List, but there are still worries over the stability of their population in Europe, and there has been a recent decline in the UK population. Some birds are resident in the UK, but most migrate from other areas, including Russia and Sweden, when the ground becomes too hard for them to forage. Interestingly, woodcock rarely bred in the UK until the nineteenth century, when it is thought that cover planted for pheasant shoots provided an ideal habitat and lead to a marked increase in numbers. They rely on open woodland with ground cover to breed, and on farmland for feeding, especially grazed pasture (apparently grazed pasture can have five times as many earthworms as arable land – a veritable feast for a woodcock!). So you can see just by looking at our countryside how ideal some of it is as woodcock habitat – small, well-managed woodlands right next to grazed pasture full of insects, worms and spiders.
But the simple fact is that if farmers were not managing the land so carefully, then these precious habitats would disappear. The farmed landscape of Europe is essential to the survival of woodcock and dozens of other species: they are farmland birds, and if we lose our farms and our farmers, we will lose them too. And as for the woodcock, they are a charming bird, and although their plumage is not the brightest, there is a real beauty in their delicate patterning and secretive behaviour. I am very happy to have seen one, and I daresay I’ll be back in that field a few times this year, lurking in the dusk, trying to spot another woodcock!
P.S. If anyone tells me what I saw is not a woodcock I shall cry. Don’t let that stop you though, I would hate to have a bird incorrectly identified!
Woodcock listing on the IUCN Red List:
Game and Wildlife Conservation Fund Woodcock Research:
Paper on woodcock habitat selection and earthworm density: