Woodcock win­ter won­der

The Courier & Advertiser (Fife Edition) - - NEWS | OPINION - An­gus Whit­son

Walk­ing with Inka on a wood­land track a woodcock rose silently from rough grass and flit­ted off ahead of us, jouk­ing and jink­ing low be­tween the trees. Woodcock are es­sen­tially wad­ing birds with a long, straight beak, a dumpy body and short legs which have adapted to a wood­land en­vi­ron­ment.

Un­like the ex­plo­sive clat­ter of a pheas­ant tak­ing flight, woodcock can be so silent and fleet­ing you ques­tion if you re­ally saw it – just a blink-of-an-eye en­counter.

Ev­ery­thing about a woodcock is se­cre­tive. Their rus­set plumage and barred head and breast are in com­plete har­mony with their sur­round­ings and, for me, they are prob­a­bly the most ap­peal­ing of the wood­land birds.

Large eyes, set high and quite far back on their heads, give them highly de­vel­oped all-round vi­sion en­abling them to look for­ward while prob­ing with their long beaks for food and keep­ing a look­out for preda­tors.

Au­tumn mi­grants from north­ern Europe aug­ment our res­i­dent breed­ing pop­u­la­tion over the win­ter fly­ing here, like the grey geese, to en­joy our milder win­ters.

The mi­grant birds gen­er­ally time their ar­rival to co­in­cide with the full moon in Oc­to­ber.

A large flight of woodcock is re­ferred to as a “fall”, an ap­pro­pri­ate de­scrip­tion, be­cause they fall into longestab­lished ar­eas of rough cover upon ar­rival on our coast, mov­ing in­land when they have re­cov­ered from their long flight.

I’ve read of trawler­men com­ing across hun­dreds of the birds float­ing in the sea, too weak to fly fur­ther.

Opin­ion is split whether, in the face of dan­ger, woodcock air­lift their chicks to safety clutched be­tween their thighs. I’ve no doubts that I’ve seen it twice – though there were 40 years be­tween the two in­stances.

Artists’ feather

As an artis­tic aside, woodcock have a short, stiff pin feather on the el­bow joint of each wing which was prized by Vic­to­rian artists for paint­ing very fine lines, and by minia­tur­ists, too, for their de­tailed work.

As was the way in those days, some­times the birds were shot just for those two small feath­ers.

An el­derly man who had spent a life­time beat­ing and pick­ing up at shoots showed me a jam jar full of these feath­ers.

They must have rep­re­sented sev­eral hun­dred shot woodcock and he had no idea that the feath­ers had a fur­ther use.

There are con­cerns for the wood­cocks’ fu­ture and a re­cent re­port from the Game & Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust stated that they have been placed on the Red List for birds of con­ser­va­tion con­cern.

Ex­tended pe­ri­ods of freez­ing con­di­tions this win­ter would be about the worst prospect for them, as they feed prob­ing the ground with their long beaks for earth­worms and leather jack­ets (the lar­vae of daddy-long-legs) and other in­sects.

This be­comes im­pos­si­ble if the ground is frozen. Stud­ies show that they can sur­vive four days with­out feed­ing, but then their en­ergy re­serves be­gin rapidly to be de­pleted. Dy­ing swans

I took Inka across the fields for a turn around Fasque Lake. It looks as though two of the four cygnets that I re­ported on some weeks ago have been lost. They won’t have flown, as the ju­ve­nile birds stay with the par­ents un­til the spring fol­low­ing hatch­ing. A fox is the most likely preda­tor big enough to deal with a bird as large as a cygnet, but I’ve read on The Swan Sanc­tu­ary web­site that they are also the prey of mink which I have twice seen on the lake.

Hun­gry birds

I fill the bird feed­ers each morn­ing not just for the plea­sure of see­ing the birds come to the gar­den, but life is pretty pre­car­i­ous for the small gar­den song­birds when the frosts come.

They don’t build up large fat re­serves and at this time their day is spent al­most cease­lessly hunt­ing for food to en­sure they have the ex­tra en­ergy needed to keep warm dur­ing the long win­ter nights.

I’ve put up two nest­ing boxes for the tits to roost in. I put a wisp of dry hay, not straw which can har­bour mites, or a hand­ful of dry shav­ings in the bot­tom of the boxes to pro­vide ex­tra warmth.

Most of the blue tits dis­ap­pear from the gar­den at the out­set of win­ter.

They re­treat into the com­par­a­tive warmth and shel­ter of the woods and for­age about in the tree canopy where they can find plenty of the in­sects they need.

Their place is taken by the shy coal tits, the small­est of the tit fam­ily and eas­ily iden­ti­fied by the white patch on their nape, hang­ing up­side down on the fat balls. They join the great tits with their sooty waist­coats, and the goldfinches and the wood­pecker which makes oc­ca­sional vis­its.

We’re in the thick of Inka’s au­tumn moult. He needs to shed the old hair and let a new coat grow in, but the Doyenne seems to hold me per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for the end­less black hair car­pet­ing the floor – and the muddy paw marks when we come in from walks. It seems like I’ve got the vac­uum for­ever on the go!

“A woodcock tak­ing flight can be so silent you ques­tion if you re­ally saw it

A woodcock for­ag­ing for food. Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages.

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