Words: Kate Risely, of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)
I’ve never had a really good sighting of a Woodcock. They have flushed from almost under my feet when I’ve been walking in woodland, and I’ve seen them performing their display flights – known as roding – in forest clearings at twilight, but I’ve never had binoculars trained on a sitting bird in full daylight.
This failure of mine is not entirely surprising, as these are not easy birds to see. Woodcock are nocturnal and highly secretive, and lie low during the day in their woodland habitat, perfectly camouflaged in their beautifully barred and patterned plumage.
Their eyes are set high and well back on their heads, giving them 360-degree vision, meaning that a Woodcock is almost certain to see you before you see it. This adaptation also means that a photograph of the back of a Woodcock’s head will show the eyes clearly, making it look strangely like a bird without a beak! Woodcock are year-round residents, breeding throughout much of the UK, though in winter their numbers are swelled by arrivals from the continent. Woodcock are a quarry species in many countries, and it is mainly through reports of shot birds that we know most of our winter visitors come from Scandinavia and Russia. Wintering birds can be seen arriving along the east coast in autumn, often appearing at the same time as continental Goldcrests.
This gave rise to an old folk name for the Goldcrest, ‘Woodcock pilot’, as it was believed that the Goldcrests, being too tiny to make the crossing unaided, had travelled on the backs of the Woodcock. Most of the British breeders remain in this country all winter, though ringing recoveries tell us that Scottish breeding birds are more likely to move south in winter, to Ireland, France or Spain.
The Woodcock’s unusual status, being a nocturnal and elusive quarry species, means that ring recoveries have an important role to play in Woodcock research. In fact, Woodcock were being ringed long before the formation of the British and Irish Ringing Scheme in 1909.
At the instigation of the Duke of Northumberland, gamekeepers on the Alnwick estates ringed some 600 Woodcock chicks between 1891 and 1921, which provided the first evidence that British breeders are mainly sedentary.
The current Duke of Northumberland is patron of The Woodcock Network, an organisation that aims to train members of the hunting community to ring Woodcock with BTO rings, using their knowledge of their quarry species to further Woodcock research and conservation.
Though ringing and recovery records are valuable, we can’t rely on records of ringed birds to fill in the gaps for the Bird Atlas 2007-11. There are still many 10-km squares around the country where not a single Woodcock has been recorded in any winter since 2007. This is the last winter of Atlas fieldwork, so I urge you to take a look at the ‘Regional Results’ pages on the Atlas website – if there are any squares near you still missing Woodcock, perhaps it’s time for a winter woodland walk!
Looking ahead to the spring, 2011 will bring the final breeding season of Atlas fieldwork, and records of breeding Woodcock are, so far, very thin on the ground. While of course we would expect fewer birds to be present in the breeding season than in the winter, they appear to be missing from many 10-km squares where they were recorded breeding in previous Atlases.
This may be due to a decline in numbers – we know from various studies that the breeding population is declining, though they are not encountered frequently enough to be monitored by the Breeding Bird Survey – but it is also likely that this species is under-recorded.