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Part 36 - The Woodcock

Woodcock Scolopax rusticola

The woodcock is an ornithological oddity, as the only “wading “bird – the group that includes sandpipers, shanks, godwits, curlews etc – to have adopted a woodland habitat. It looks rather like a large snipe, with an extremely long bill and superbly camouflaged markings which enable it to spend most of the day undetected, in deep cover. The bill is used to probe soft ground, from which earthworms, insect larvae, woodlice and other small invertebrates are removed. Like other ground feeders, woodcock are especially likely to suffer in prolonged spells of cold weather, when they must quickly find unfrozen feeding areas or die.

Woodcock are only active from dusk onwards and their nests are almost impossible to find. For this and other reasons, their numbers have always been a bit of mystery but the most recent estimates suggest that there may be around 20,000 “pairs” in England. (The word pair has to be in inverted commas here because the woodcock’s sexual habits are more closely aligned to those of 60s rock stars than, say, Church of England vicars). The population is then swelled hugely in winter when as many as 100,000 birds may migrate here from north-east Europe and Russia.

I’ve seen only one woodcock in Kingston in my 14 years here, that bird being in the back garden of the house in Wellgreen Lane, which formerly belonged to the late Peggy Webb. Their occurrence in gardens is, surprisingly enough, not that unusual and woodcock used to turn up regularly in the small front garden of an ex-colleague who lived in Lewes. In very cold weather, they have even been seen underneath bird feeders.

Interestingly (to me at least) the name of the river , or properly the stream, Cockshutt, which appears at Spring Barn Farm, and runs later into the Ouse, is thought by some to be a corruption of cock shoot and to be related to the fact that this was a good place to shoot these birds. Oddly enough, while I was writing this piece, I had a call from an ex-colleague who told me (and before I’d said anything about woodcock) that he had seen one flying along the banks of the stream only a few days ago: a weird coincidence!

During the breeding season, woodcock patrol their territory by making regular low level display flights. This activity might be compared with that of the military, in motive at least since it amounts to a warning (in this case to potential competitors) to keep out, but is rather less disturbing than a flight of RAF jets, the noise produced during this “roding” (origin regrettably obscure, according to my dictionary) being a pleasant “swick” rather than a deafening roar.

The lady who was lucky enough to encounter the woodcock last month was, I gather, only an occasional visitor to the wood in question. In contrast, I calculated recently that I have walked through that same wood around 4000 times since 1994, with nary a woodcock in sight. Is there no justice, I ask?

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