Nocturnal Woodcock in Meadows Over Winter

Thank you Julian for this thoughtful and winter centred post:

We’re past the worst. As I began to tap this out on the morning of December 22nd, I can say this with confidence. The days are now extending, the nights reducing, at least for the next 6 months or so.

But what a particularly odd, human perspective. What if your behaviour isn’t mollycoddled and centrally heated? What if you’re dependent on the long, dark hours for getting out and about? And having to glean what food you can from the harsher winter conditions which sometimes prevail, even here, in this Advent month?

Do you dread the longer nights and shorter days, or revel in them? Do you relish dawn, or dusk, sun or rain?  Do you long for moonlight? Or yearn for impenetrable dark, and wind swept, rain lashed landscapes? And so I introduce, the peculiarly named, crepuscular Scolopax rusticola. Unless you’re a skilled birder, you’re more likely to work out what I’m talking about if rather than this Linnaean moniker, I give you the Old English name, of wuducoc – here the etymology is clearer, wuduwood, and cocchicken like. But what about Linnaeus’ choice of words to name this bird?

It seems, from a witty piece written by T.M.Rives, titled the “Scolpopax Conundrum”, that Linnaeus “didn’t go to a lot of trouble: scolopax is Latin for “woodcock,” which in turn comes from the word askalopas, which is ancient Greek for…“woodcock.” 

Rives continues:

“When you see a jumble like askalopas, it’s pretty clear that some dusty naming story is happening in there, too….Enter my friend J.P. Bernbach. A writer and classicist, J.P. is my go-to guy for Greek…. J.P riffed for a few minutes and came up with two etymologies, each perfectly viable, each with a different story in it. The first: skoli + opos (σκολι-ωπος) which could mean “skew-eyed” or, with a bit of stretching, “looking askance.” The other is skalops (σκαλοψ), a word used also for moles which breaks down to “dig-face.” This is amazing convergence, and amazing work, considering that J.P. didn’t know (as you do if you read the post) that the woodcock’s eyes are so high on its head it sees backwards, and it spends most of its time beak-deep in dirt.”

Following on from my very close-up encounter with a roadkill woodcock last month, I’d been thrilled to see a familiar, solitary silhouette flying over the yard, due North, a couple of weeks ago, in the gloom of dusk, before the light completely vanished. Last week as the clouds eventually dispersed, we had both wonderful near full moon rises at dusk, and then, as a forecast frost fell, along with an un-forecast (Lord) Frost falling or at least resigning, came a wonderful sunrise on Sunday morning. This had me grabbing the camera, tripod, goatsocks and Lopi jumper and fiddling with low ISO numbers, and apertures to take the very long exposure images necessary to capture the intense colour hues bleeding from the distant horizon, through indigo and the still near black of the higher, early dawn sky.

It was as I was taking the very first photo, just before any other birds began to pink and trill, that I spotted a woodcock once more, though this time heading in the opposite direction across the yard, fairly low, and dipping down into the valley beyond the cowshed, heading for the scrubby woodland which now covers a quite extensive area heading down towards the village, and beyond. Even better, at dusk on the same day as we both headed out with a torch from the house, to walk down to the end of lane post box to collect a parcel, I spotted one flying back up the track behind the house.

A thought struck me. Were these chance observations, or was it the same bird I’d seen earlier and if so, did it imply that the bird had a regular dusk time flight path? From re-visiting my only other occasion of trying to observe and photograph woodcock, at dusk, from nearly 5 years ago, I learned two things.

Firstly, that early January 2017 was when I’d finally managed to acquire my now ageing, and scratched-lens Panasonic Lumix, (and this after apparently waiting 18 months to get it) which I’ve been hoping to replace now for many months, but current unavailability has prevented me from doing so. Secondly, that these crepuscular birds (a wonderful word meaning to appear, or become active, in twilight) often fly out from their safe daytime habitat of wooded terrain, to feed on more open fields.

I’ve rechecked the links from that nearly 5 year old post, and followed up on a lot more, to try to write this piece, but it seems that the elusive woodcock and its ecology is still very poorly understood, and often better by people trying to shoot them, rather than the average birdwatcher. One of the most helpful pieces for me came from a report by Andrew Forgrave in “The Daily Post”, following RSPB Conwy’s manager Julian Hughes, on a night time mission with Robin Sandham, to ring woodcock in a couple of fields above Llandudno in pouring rain and a strong wind.

This confirmed that most of the woodcock found in West Wales will be winter migrants, which are now thought to travel here, in November, from Russia. One was tracked from West Wales back to Kazakhstan, a journey of over 4,000 miles, which would involve the bird overflying Russia, Ukraine, Poland, or maybe the Czech Republic or Slovakia, Germany, Belgium and maybe France before reaching the UK. Kazakhstan is the country outlined in blue green around the temperature scale colours to the bottom right of the map below.

Hugely impressive for a bird flying alone, at night (?), at up to 58mph and travelling up to 690 miles in one go before stopping to feed for a week or so. Moreover, like our much more familiar summer migrants such as swallows, individual birds will often return to the same site each year, and even feed in the same particular few fields.

This piece also includes these other interesting points about woodcock:

  • As a nocturnal bird, Woodcocks have big eyes set on each side of the head. This gives them 360 degree vision, one of the very few birds that have this capability.
  • Male Woodcocks’ courtship flights over the woodland canopy are known as “roding”. They make a deep, frog-like sound and a high “twisick” call.
  • A small pin-feather on the wing is highly-prized by artists who use it to paint fine detail. For many years, it was used to hand draw the gold line down the side of Rolls Royce cars.
  • If she senses danger, a female Woodcock can carry and even fly with small chicks tucked between her legs and body.
  • Woodcock has recently been added to the UK Red List of Conservation Concern after declines of around 80% in breeding pairs in North wales since 1970.

Although the UK has a population of native woodcock, numbers of breeding pairs are thought to be well below 100,000, and recent work suggests that numbers in mid and South Wales and the South West of England have declined to the point that it’s thought that no breeding (in spring) takes place. So the annual influx of perhaps 1 million or so continental birds is critical for anyone in this part of the world ever having a chance to see one.

This idea of birds returning to the same location, and even using just a few very specific fields for night time feeding, got me thinking. Since I’d read elsewhere that woodcock prefer to use a field within about 1 km of their daytime wooded resting place, I wondered if over a few days, I could track this bird, and discover which field it was actually heading to. Might it even be our now species rich, fungally diverse, molehill ridden, upper hay meadow? Since judging by starling numbers which visit during the day, this meadow turf probably supports a rich earthworm (over 85% of a woodcock’s food intake), along with other below ground invertebrates.

A study in France of winter feeding patterns, involving 65 radio transmitter tagged, different birds over 3 winters, found that grazed meadows were indeed their preferred nocturnal habitat:

“During seven nights in 2001, we monitored 23 birds at 2 hour intervals. 80% of birds stayed the entire night in the field chosen at the beginning of the night and 89% within a radius of 150 metres.”

and in the section on nocturnal habitat selection:

Nocturnal habitat selection was different from random use, and dry grazed meadows were preferred, followed by stubbles and wet and
young grazed meadows (Table 4). Un-grazed meadows
and seed plots were avoided. There was a tenfold reduction
in earthworm biomass  between a meadow and a
corn plot in a Brittany survey.

Clearly with reference to our landscape, stubbles don’t exist anywhere nearby, so aren’t an option, and “dry” grazed meadows is a relative term, although hillside sloping meadows are likely to be less waterlogged, and thus probably more earthworm rich, than winter waterlogged valley bottom fields. In addition, current active or recent grazing is an important factor in field selection:

“Un-grazed meadows were avoided compared to the three types of grazed meadows. Grazed meadows support more earthworms than hay-meadows (this must be during later winter, since most hay meadows, like ours here, are grazed short early in the winter-sic) because animal manure serves as food for most earthworm species. Although we did not sample earthworms in un-grazed meadows, we did a qualitative visual inspection using a spade and found numerous earthworms there. In addition to probable but minor differences in earthworm abundance, we believe that the avoidance of un-grazed meadows is likely the result of the difference in vegetation structure (tall grass compared to short grass in grazed meadows). It’s also been postulated that the short swards of grazed meadows enable easy mobility of woodcocks and better detection of their preys and predators. Indeed predation by mammals (feral cats, foxes and mustelids) mostly happen at night in fields.”

So the following evening, on a grey, gloomy, cold day with a brisk Easterly wind blowing, I set up my even older Camcorder, on night exposure setting, at the edge of the yard around 4 pm. (Having finally wrecked my old Lumix the previous dusk, as I momentarily turned away from the tripod, set on the steep access track to our hay meadow, only to hear a sickening clank as it had toppled over, and the camera hit the stony ground).

And so, well wrapped up but gloveless, I waited as the poor light got ever gloomier, the blackbirds pinked, the distant rooks cawed, and the valley fell silent. Around 4.30 pm, my ever chilling left hand left the camera as a potential panning aid, to warm up in my trouser pocket. By 4.40 pm, when I heard the wood pellet stove fan came on in the chimney, my right hand, held hovering above the shutter release button all this time was close to non functioning. The camera viewfinder was now so black that even if a bird had flown past and I’d seen it, nothing would have registered on the camera’s card.

I gave up and retreated inside briefly, before after all that standing immobile in the cold, I needed to nip out of the back door for a pee. Clutching the watering can, and looking up through the tangle of Amelanchier stems, I glimpsed the woodcock! Drat! Just minutes later than I’d expected, but still predictably following the same flight up the hill. To where?

The following day saw another weather flip once more, to a lovely sunny dawn and clear sky day.

By now my plan had been tweaked a little more. I’d stand (not before 4.30 p.m. to avoid hypothermia again), positioned beside a railway sleeper straining post as a form of camouflage, dressed in black, just beyond the PV panels with the camcorder on its tripod facing South West to catch the best of the waning light.

This position also enabled me to cover a fair bit of the lower sloping angle of the short cropped and still grazed, upper hay meadow. Waiting for the assorted roosting birds to gradually fall silent, I was relieved to see a still decent level of display on the camera’s viewfinder. Imagine my thrill, when barely 5 minutes later, the familiar large, low, fast angling silhouette appeared from the direction of the Amelanchiers and yard, and fly left to right across my field of view before dipping below the contour of the field, due South West from where I stood. I was pretty certain I’d caught it on camera, as I swung it fast to track the flight? But had I? No matter I thought I’d wait a while, and maybe I’d get lucky and see another?

Now imagine that thrill being trumped, as over the next 15 to 20 minutes, perhaps 7 or 8 such sightings were witnessed as more woodcock flew in from above and behind me, and from due South. On the last 2 occasions, I’d actually closed up the camera and tripod, when another appeared and had me scrabbling to switch it on in time, and failing. Inevitably some of the clips below are blurry and fleeting. You probably won’t even see the birds on a small screen, but they’re there! And although it’s possible one or two might have flown back and forth before settling, there are almost no similar videos that I could find on-line of such sights at dawn or dusk? They’re really challenging birds to follow in poor light.

http://

So perhaps I should set up a “Live Woodcock Club”, for anyone who manages to witness and capture on camera just such a magical, amazing scene of a dusk or even dawn woodcock, overflying or even better landing in a traditional meadow. Perhaps I could even make a club sweat shirt to wear when going on a chilly woodcock hunt, incorporating the image of the superhydrophobic roadkill woodcock plumage on the rear? And on the front, a flying woodcock silhouetted against the full (November) woodcock moon, as in Gabriel Hemery’s beautiful image lower down this page?

There is already, it should be noted, a woodcock club. With its own tie and badge, and annual dinner. But the entry criterion is to have shot not one, but two birds, physically with separate cartridges from the barrels of a gun, without re-loading, and in the presence of two witnesses. For the last year it seems to have recorded such statistics, (2019), there were actually 39 new members for the club, bringing the total to over 1400, and this for a bird that is red listed as being of serious conservation concern! Although these would nearly all (or indeed all?) be of woodcock shot during the day after being “put up” by a hunting dog from scrubby cover.

What a change from the times when they were so numerous, that they could be caught in traps on the ground, as recalled by William Wordsworth, in his youth (“The Prelude: Book 1: Childhood and School-time”):

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;
Much favour’d in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
I was transplanted. Well I call to mind
(‘Twas at an early age, ere I had seen
Nine summers) when upon the mountain slope
The frost and breath of frosty wind had snapp’d
The last autumnal crocus, ’twas my joy
To wander half the night among the Cliffs
And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran
Along the open turf. In thought and wish
That time, my shoulder all with springes hung,
I was a fell destroyer. On the heights
Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied
My anxious visitation, hurrying on,
Still hurrying, hurrying onward; moon and stars
Were shining o’er my head; I was alone,
And seem’d to be a trouble to the peace
That was among them. Sometimes it befel
In these night-wanderings, that a strong desire
O’erpower’d my better reason, and the bird
Which was the captive of another’s toils
Became my prey; and, when the deed was done
I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.

There seem to be very few poems written about these amazing, necessarily secretive  birds (since man, for centuries, seems to have been determined to shoot, hunt them with falcons, or as in Wordsworth’s day, trap them). Although very recently Gabriel Hemery has penned at least a couple:

Perhaps a few more hours spent trying to photograph them, or even writing a few pithy lines about them, would be a wonderful wintry respite for many, from the current news feeds.

Before I leave the woodcock for now, check out this wonderful, very recent video of ringing Welsh woodcock at night, by Owen Williams and only posted 2 days ago, with some brilliant infra-red night time video clips of woodcock, both on the ground and in flight.

http://

So for any meadow owners who read this, there’s still plenty of time to get out there, just before dusk over the next couple of months to have a look.

Ideally stand still in dark clothing and get the camera fairly low down if you’re trying to get a photo, and scanning due South West over the meadow for better silhouettes. Be patient, and if you do see and photograph one or more, I’d love to know, and I’ll start work on a sweatshirt design!

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