Nocturnal Woodcock ringing

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By Russell Wynn, 7 November 2015

 

A New Forest Woodcock ‘in-the-hand’. Note the large eye and long bill, well designed for probing soft ground at night in pursuit of earthworms
A New Forest Woodcock ‘in-the-hand’. Note the large eye and long bill, well designed for probing soft ground at night in pursuit of earthworms

 

 

Marcus and I were out with Graham Giddens, an experienced bird ringer and trainer, and part of a recent initiative to find out more about these mysterious birds. The ‘New Forest Woodcock Group’ (NFWG) has ringed over 1200 Woodcocks in the last four winters, and has also undertaken radio-tracking studies of a small sample of birds to better understand habitat use in the forest. The New Forest is emerging as a regional stronghold of this species, against a backdrop of apparently steady decline in the wider UK countryside (roughly 30% in the last decade).

Woodcocks are easier to locate at night, which is why we were wandering around in the forest in the dark! Capturing and handling Woodcocks requires a British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) license, and can only be undertaken by trained and qualified ringers operating with the permission of the Forestry Commission.

Our first site was in the east of the forest, and after leaving the car we quietly slipped through some trees and out onto a large expanse of grassy plain (Woodcocks prefer areas of damp pasture, where they can probe at night for earthworms and other invertebrate prey). A couple of unseasonal glow-worms winked at us in the darkness, benefitting from the exceptionally mild autumn weather (it was still 15 degrees C at 1900 hrs!). Graham took the lead as he searched suitable patches of habitat; Marcus and I stayed a few paces behind, trying to be as covert as possible in the darkness while avoiding rabbit holes, sleeping ponies, and other hazards.

The first few encounters with Woodcocks were fruitless, and the regular artillery of fireworks emanating from the nearby glow of Southampton probably didn’t help. But eventually we saw Graham’s silhouette bearing down on a motionless bird, and a brief scuffle saw it safely secured. This was the first Woodcock ringed by Graham this season, and it was carefully measured, weighed and photographed before being safely released back into the darkness. The low weight may have suggested it was a recently arrived migrant – NFWG data are revealing that some of our wintering birds originate from western Russia over 3000 km away!

 

Graham measures the wing length of a newly ringed Woodcock
Graham measures the wing length of a newly ringed Woodcock

 

After a couple more near misses, against a backdrop of jeering Tawny Owls, we moved to another site a little further west. The recent heavy rain had saturated the ground, challenging our ability to make a stealthy approach, but we did manage to catch and ring one more Woodcock. After several hours of effort and just two captures, it really underlined how much work the NFWG has done to ring 1200 birds in recent winters!

 

Marcus and Russ with a plump Woodcock ‘in-the-hand’
Marcus and Russ with a plump Woodcock ‘in-the-hand’

 

After saying goodbye to my two companions, I meandered across my local heath on the way home to see if I could secure any photographs. I located nine Woodcocks, and managed a few acceptable images while using a headlamp for illumination.

 

First attempt at photographing a Woodcock on the ground
First attempt at photographing a Woodcock on the ground

 

And another one!
And another one!

 

Further information about Woodcocks in the New Forest, the work of Graham and the NFWG, and the results of the recent UK survey of Woodcocks, can be found at the links below:

 

Postscript: A couple of nights later (08 Nov 2015) I accompanied Graham on another session where we caught five Woodcocks at the same two sites, including one re-trap with a slightly deformed right leg. This bird had been ringed as an adult almost exactly two years previously (on 30 Oct 2013) at a site 2.5 km away. It weighed 342 grams in 2013, compared to 289 grams when re-trapped, but overall it was doing well considering its minor disability! And a week later (15 Nov 2015) a further nocturnal photo session on my local heath produced the following images:

 

woodcock6

 

 

 

Two more Woodcocks photographed at night. Both of these birds were approached and photographed without flushing, helped by the windy conditions
Two more Woodcocks photographed at night. Both of these birds were approached and photographed without flushing, helped by the windy conditions

 

 

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