David North, Head of People and Wildlife
The last week of November caught me moon-gazing, captivated by a beautiful and very golden full moon rising on the eastern horizon before it vanished into a blanket of cloud. The November full moon is sometimes known as a woodcock moon as traditionally it was always thought that woodcock would wait for moonlight nights before crossing the North Sea to arrive, sometimes in large numbers known as a fall, along the coast in eastern counties such as Norfolk.
Well whatever the truth of this I was pleased to spot three woodcock in woods close to my house the following morning. Woodcock may be the commonest wader in Britain during the winter months as in some years it estimated that as many as 800,000 cross the North Sea to winter in the UK arriving from Scandinavia or even Russia. Despite these numbers seeing a woodcock is by no means easy! The first one I saw was a fairly typical view: a warm chestnut brown bird, rather rotund with short, broad, rounded wings flying rapidly away from me through trees. This bird ‘exploded’ from a carpet of leaves on the woodland floor and with a characteristic rustling of wings vanished in seconds. The other two I spotted flying high over a ploughed field, distinctive in silhouette the only species you might mistake them for would be snipe but the wings are broader and less pointed and the bill though pointed only half the length of a snipe’s. Most likely these birds had been disturbed by beaters from a shoot as not too far away I could hear the sound of gunfire. Many game shoots do discourage the shooting of woodcock though they remain a legal quarry species during the shooting season.
Woodcock are mysterious birds but we are slowly learning more about them. In recent years the game conservancy has satellite tagged a number of woodcock during the winter in England and this has revealed their long east – west migration routes. Our wintering birds were found to travel to breeding grounds in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Belarus and Russia with some birds travelling over 7,000km.
In the past they were netted in big numbers in Norfolk woods during the winter as their flesh was considered a delicacy. The NWT reserve, Cockshoot Broad, in the Bure valley takes its name from this activity. A ‘cockshoot’ was a clearing made in woodland where wool nets were strung to catch woodcock leaving the wood on their dusk flights when they move to open marshland and pasture seeking their favourite food, worms.
They do breed in some Norfolk woods and in spring and early summer the polygamous males perform circular ‘roding’ flights making curious grunting sounds presumably to impress watching and waiting females below. Its suggested that woodcock at least on occasion carry their unfledged, flightless young with them in flight. Several reputable observers have described the adults carrying a chick clasped between the adult’s upper legs with the tail folded under giving additional support.
Another story about woodcock is the November woodcock moon. It was noted as long ago as Victorian times that falls of woodcock on the coast often coincided with the morning after the full moon. On these cold November mornings large numbers of goldcrests also appeared so it was thought they had ridden across the North Sea on the backs of woodcock and sometimes were referred to as ‘woodcock pilots’. This of course is a myth but it does seem that woodcock do favour clear moonlit nights for their migrations so the tales of woodcock moons may have some truth to them. Whatever the case now is a good time to keep an eye out for a woodcock. You will need to be very fortunate to spot this superbly camouflaged, strange woodland wader on the ground but if you hear a rustle of wings and spot a rufous brown feathered ball hurtling away from you through the trees on broad rounded wings then you too have seen a woodcock – the owl-like wader of our woodlands, a rare sight but possibly our commonest wader, a bird of mystery, tall stories and fascinating contradictions. I hope you spot one!