This highly secretive species is somewhat unusual for a wading bird. Active at night and most readily seen around dawn and dusk, it is adapted for a life predominantly spent within broad-leaved woodland. Here, in the south-western part of Norfolk, the woodcock can be found breeding and wintering in young conifer plantations, moving out into the surrounding pastureland to feed on earthworms and other soil-living invertebrates taken from the surface and top layers of the soil. The bird uses its long and highly sensitive bill to probe for prey.
Although the woodcock which breed here in summer are thought to be largely sedentary in their habits, birds from further north are migratory, with many thousands arriving to spend the winter here. Those birds that arrive in Norfolk from the second half of October will have come from Finland, Latvia and Russia. Such arrivals may continue into late December but go largely unnoticed because they arrive at night. Tradition has it that they all arrive together, some time around all hallows, following a change in the wind direction and close to a full moon. While it appears that a northerly or north-easterly wind is associated with the arrival of these winter visitors, there does not seem to be any evidence that the phase of the moon exerts an influence. However, such is the strength of this tradition that wildfowlers may refer to autumn full moons as ‘woodcock moons’. It is not just with the moon that the woodcock has been associated. The ease with which woodcock could be caught, typically by erecting nets at dawn or dusk across rides cut into a block of woodland, led to the notion that the species was rather stupid. This, in turn, led to the use of the term ‘woodcock’ as a synonym for slow-wittedness in a person – a harsh association for such a handsome bird.