Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Woodcock displays parenting skills

There are some sights in the natural world that really do have to be seen to be believed. The other day, a wildlife photographer friend of mine told me of a recent encounter with a Woodcock. He had been out in one of his local woods searching for butterflies when he disturbed the bird. The Woodcock took flight and he was immediately struck by the fact that it was carrying something between its legs. As the bird dropped towards cover and released what it had been carrying, he could clearly see that it was a young chick. This was a behaviour that he had read about but, like me, never quite believed possible. Searching the ground from where the bird had taken off he soon found another chick, the parent obviously only able to carry one of her precious young at a time.

The Woodcock is a curious bird; a wader that is solitary in habits and which nests in a most unwader-like manner, selecting open woodland with some ground cover. These are familiar birds locally, with many pairs making use of the plantation woodland which grows on the sandy Breckland soils. Here they may be encountered at dusk during the early part of the breeding season, as the males follow regular circuits through the wood along which they indulge in a slow and distinctive display flight. The flight, known as ‘roding’ appears somewhere between that of an owl and an oversized bat.

Nesting Woodcock are extremely well camouflaged and not often encountered, the nest placed on the ground and often within a few feet of a tree, which provides some degree of shelter. The young are not born naked and helpless like songbirds but are covered with down and are well-advanced when they emerge from the egg. This means that they can soon leave the nest, following their mother and learning the skills needed to survive on their own. The few reports of Woodcock carrying young suggest that these birds will pick up chicks between their legs to move them away from an area that the parent considers unsafe. There are also one or two reports to suggest that a parent might also use this approach to carry chicks over a substantial obstacle, perhaps one blocking their route at ground level.

This does go to show that there is always something new to see when you spend time outside watching wildlife. If you put in the hours and take the trouble to really immerse yourself in the natural world then you may occasionally be rewarded by something truly amazing. It might not be a Woodcock carrying a chick but it could easily be something that is witnessed only rarely.

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