Monday, 12 December 2005

The Woodcock moon

It was bitterly cold the other morning as I drove the dogs out to the forest. Still dark, the headlights of the car picked out the distinctive squat shape of a woodcock settled in the middle of a quiet forest road. I brought the car to a gentle stop some twenty feet or so from the bird. Dazzled by the headlights, the woodcock remained motionless, affording me the opportunity to admire what is surely the most handsome of our wading birds. It’s head, back and wings are camouflaged by a mottle of browns and greys, while broken horizontal bars cross its paler chest. As I dipped the lights, the bird was up in the air and gone. This had not been my only view of this species over recent weeks. On other mornings I had seen the distinctive silhouette of a woodcock set against the dawn sky.

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.

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