The Woodcock. By Andrew Brown

Legend has it that when the world was created, whoever devised birds did a very good job but
was left with a few unused parts in a box so he used them all up to create what we now know
as the Woodcock. There was a head with two large eyes on top of it, a long, soft beak, two big
square wings and a triangular tail, two dumpy legs and big feet.
Over the years there was much folklore surrounding this mysterious bird. As it disappeared in
April and reappeared in November it was thought to fly to the moon. It wasn’t until the early
1800s when some birds became resident in the UK that this belief disappeared.
Because large numbers of Goldcrest arrived in Norfolk, particularly around Caister, in
November at the same time as the Woodcock the Goldcrest became known as the Woodcock’s
Pilot. I can’t help having a Disneyesque picture in my mind of a Goldcrest complete with goggles
sitting on the back of a Woodcock as it flew across the North Sea. The Woodcock has been
seen to relocate its young by carrying them between its legs
I looked forward for many years to seeing the first Woodcock arriving in Old Costessey. Some
years in November I would see it in the open as presumably it was in urgent need of food having
crossed the North Sea from Scandinavia, particularly central Sweden where our birds go.
Thereafter you have to go looking for them in places which give them good camouflage and
provide them with something to eat. They seem to have favoured areas rather than specific
locations. It can be frustrating as you fail to find them on a search but they will suddenly take
flight when you least expect them. to
Generally speaking, in the valley between Hellesdon Mill and Costessey they prefer low lying
areas which have small trees and hedges, especially those that shed reddy brown leaves which
provide good camouflage. They generally sit tight longer than Snipe and are silent when
flushed, except for sometimes when their large wings clatter through foliage, rather like a Wood
Pigeon. If they take flight in your direction rather than from the back of a hedge, for example,
they will rise to a good hedge-top height and fly in a semi-circle around you seeming to be
looking at you quizzically as they do so. This is a completely different strategy to that employed
by the Snipe when flushed.
I have not seen Woodcock in my part of the valley in summer but haven’t spent much time
looking for them as I was not successful when I did look for them. The only time I have seen
them flying was on two occasions at dusk in early April quite a long time ago.
Often in spring. I would hear what I can only describe as electronic snoring emanating from
favoured Woodcock locations. I could find no reference to this in bird books but it has appeared
more recently in Xeno-canto. It is made by the male and is presumably a call to attract a female
as it is only made by the male. I don’t know if it is made by a resident male or a male seeking
to find a partner before it migrates.
One day walking home with the dogs early one spring morning I heard this call much more
persistently than before. A few hundred yards further on I met a local resident who, knowing of
my interest in birds, told me that he had found a dead Woodcock in his garden that morning
which possibly had collided with a power line. Was it his mate calling, I wonder?
Once I took a couple of friends to photograph Adders in a pine wood just off the Reepham
Road. Best time is late February/early March when the sun is low in the morning sky and
penetrates beneath trees. At this time Adders are only interested in warming their blood and
take up favourite places to do so, and presumably are not dangerous and don’t want to move.
I found a couple of large Adders basking at the base of a fence below oak trees next to a gap
in a fence. I left the photographers for a while and on returning looked behind the wire fence
where the Adders were. There, sitting tight about a foot from an Adder, presumably having
been there all the time, was a Woodcock which decided it was time to make a hasty exit.
There is no doubt in my mind that the number of Woodcock has fallen considerably in the area
I monitor. The resident population is believed to have fallen in numbers in comparative terms
with winter visitors. Many of their favourite locations have been overrun by brambles etc and
the trees in marshy areas are deteriorating badly due to a lack of management. My initial
searches this year did not result in me finding any Woodcock. The Woodcock and Snipe are
the only UK species of waders which may be shot. As in the case of the Grey Partridge, hunters
are urged not to shoot these birds but there is no law against it. It is argued that if there is a
ban, landowners will be deterred from maintaining the habitat but in my case that seems to
have happened already.

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