The dead-leaf camouflage of this secretive wader


WE AWAIT the woodcocks on the November moon. Some have already been seen on the east coast, tired after their crossing of the North Sea, creeping about on the shingle and sand marrams on the Norfolk coast.

Back in the 1940s my father saw hundreds of woodcock in the bitter weather of those wartime winters sitting about in the streets of Cley-next-the-Sea almost unable to fly after battling the wind frosts.

In recent years observers at Sheringham have seen peregrine falcons waiting on for tired woodcock coming in low above the waves, sometimes making an easy kill, sometimes missing the target which then dives into the bushes and sandy crags of Poppy-land.

Here in Sussex a few birds are seen making landfall at Brighton, where the occasional one is trapped in the Heligoland traps and released again with a metal ring and identification number.

This secretive wader with its dead-leaf camouflage is difficult to count accurately and is certainly under-counted when you read in the Sussex Bird Report that only about 100+ are seen in the winter period, in recent times. Or is this correct? I am beginning to wonder, because in the past years numbers of woodcock in these vast woods around my home have gone down, down, down.

No longer do we see woodcock roding in summer as we used to thirty years ago. And on the shoot it is now rare to have a woodcock flushed over the guns. Nor have I been seeing my usual three or four birds at dusk as they flight out to feeding grounds in the meadows as they always used to do. Last winter, not one.

This set me thinking “why?” I am toying with the idea that since the numbers of cattle have been greatly reduced around us, the woodcock no longer find prime worm feeding and have moved their winter woodland quarters to somewhere else next to cattle. Just a thought.

Breeding woodcock in Sussex are low in number these days too. Only about 60 are recorded nowadays.

Since the increase in badgers after their protection in 1973 this may have a bearing on the subject. Badgers systematically hoover the ground in all directions and who knows, may be responsible for the decrease in tree pipts over the years although there are still 160 pairs in the county.

Back to woodcock – the latest Wetland Birds Survey estimates the number over-wintering to be about 1.4 million birds. 83 per cent of these are considered to be continental birds flying here from the Baltic, Russia and Scandinavia.

Marvellous to think that many arrive on the November/December moons and are just never seen by the majority of even country people.

I have often watched the moons with binoculars hoping to see this night immigration and have just once or twice succeeded but have more often seen redwings and fieldfares flying across the old yellow disc, not to speak of the occasional owl and once even a peregrine.