Home » Goater’s Blog: Follow that Woodcock!

Goater’s Blog: Follow that Woodcock!

Woodcock with radio tag

Adult woodcock, the books said, may transport their young one by one, away from danger, by carrying them between their legs as they fly. Well, I though it was an old gamekeepers’ tale unlikely to be true until I saw it happen some years ago in the New Forest. There, in early morning daylight near Crockford Bridge, I kicked up a woodcock which appeared to be injured as its tail was tucked forward under its belly, and it appeared unable to fly well. Remaining on the ground from where it rose, were three tiny ginger-coloured chicks, and I assumed a fourth was being moved by the adult. Not proof of this carrying behaviour, I suppose, but good supporting evidence.

In winter, typically (and romantically, I think) at the time of the October and November full moons, huge numbers of woodcock arrive in the mild UK from over the North Sea. Surveying small Scottish woodlands for wintering birds recently, I kept flushing these wintering birds, which would flash off through the trees showing a bright russet rump but giving little chance to study them closely. Unless you are a birdwatcher, a bird ringer or a bird hunter (woodcock is a legitimate quarry-species) you are unlikely to have seen a woodcock in the UK. It is a secretive and nocturnal woodland wader with fabulously cryptic markings that enable it to blend perfectly with the browns, russets and ochres of leaf litter and winter bracken. The easiest way to experience this species, but not a way of getting the best views, is to sit in a ride or clearing in an undisturbed woodland in the spring, and, as the light fails in the evening, listen for the characteristic ” twissick and grunt” call as a roding male patrols his territory at tree-top height. This is how I saw my first, as a child, in woods near Farley Mount, by Winchester, and  I recommend it for any family interested in wildlife experiences somewhat out of the ordinary.

We have all heard of the well-publicised recent work of the BTO, where British breeding cuckoos have been radio-tracked and followed on migration to central Africa. Similar work with the aim of understanding movements of woodcock wintering in the UK, is being undertaken by my good friend, Owen Williams, a professional wildlife artist based in central Wales. He is Director of the Woodcock Network, and writes the following:

“As a secretive and largely nocturnal bird the woodcock has been one of the most under researched of all our UK species. Ringing is a valuable tool in understanding population dynamics particularly in migrant species such as woodcock. However, woodcock have always been difficult to catch using conventional methods so historically the numbers ringed each year were low. In 2008 The Woodcock Network was established to help research efforts by setting up a team of dedicated woodcock ringers working across the UK.  In just four years we have increased the annual total of woodcock ringed in the UK from a couple of dozen to over a thousand, and by recruiting and training more ringers, this number is set to increase over the next few years.

This initiative is part of an increased international effort to gain a clearer understanding of woodcock migration, and our data are being shared with national and international organisations involved in research. Ringing not only provides valuable information through ring returns on where our wintering woodcock breed, but our ringers also gather valuable biometric data and information on adult/juvenile ratios, which is a good indicator of breeding success.

Woodcock are caught using a lamp and net at night when they come out of deep woodland to feed on open pastures. This has proved to be a good way of conducting counts. Now that our ringers have worked on a particular site over a few winters they find they are re-trapping an increasing number of birds, showing that woodcock exhibit a high level of wintering site fidelity.

This winter The Woodcock Network has been involved in a project to tag a number of UK wintering woodcock with both geo-locators and satellite tags that will reveal details of migration to and from their breeding grounds in Russia and Scandinavia.  The Woodcock Network purchased and fitted 10 geo-locators to woodcock this winter.  The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which is leading research into the species in the UK, has used our expertise to help fit a further 10 geo-locators along with satellite tags.

Funded largely by hunters [Owen raised £4000 from the shooting community this winter], this initiative is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the population dynamics of woodcock so that habitat management and changes in shooting practices can ensure the well-being of the species’ population into the future.”

Given the extreme public interest generated by the BTO’s Cuckoo Project, I thought that readers of this blog would be interested in following the migrations of 12 of our wintering woodcock to their breeding grounds in…where?  Russia? Norway?  Log onto www.woodcockwatch.com to find out.  One Welsh wintering tagged woodcock  has already flown as far as Leipzig.  Another, tagged near Inverness is now in Norway.  One juvenile in Cornwall flew 3 km SE out to sea and then thought better of it and returned.  What next?