Woodcock winter wonder
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.
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.
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.