Last night, Marcus and I joined a small team led by expert bird ringer, Nigel Jones, as they attempted to find and catch some Woodcocks - this is part of a long-term study on this declining UK species, and is generating valuable new data to help support their conservation in the New Forest (note that this activity can only be undertaken with various permits and licences, to ensure no harm to the birds or their environment).
Woodcocks are rarely observed in the day, as they use their superb camouflage to hide amongst the leaf litter; most sightings in the New Forest are therefore of a brown blur erupting from your feet and disappearing amongst the trees. However, at night, they emerge onto damp areas of lawn and heath to probe for worms and other invertebrates with their long beaks.
We assembled at the ringing site at 7:30pm, which on this occasion was an extensive area of flooded lawn in the central New Forest, and carefully strode out into the darkness. A Grey Heron was heard as it flew unseen overhead, and Foxes were noisily proclaiming their territories nearby. Nigel took the lead, scanning the area with a handheld thermal imager that picked out feeding ponies from several hundred metres away. His target was small bright spots on the ground that indicated a feeding bird, most probably a Woodcock or Snipe.
Once Nigel had homed in on a target, he used a spotlight to dazzle the bird and a long landing net to catch it. Over a period of a couple of hours he caught several Woodcocks using this technique, and missed a few more (as well as a few Snipe). Once each bird was secured, the team moved in to fit a metal ring to its right leg, and quickly undertake various observations and measurements, before the Woodcock was safely released back into the darkness.
We covered most of the site in a couple of hours, and somehow managed to avoid falling into any flooded ditches while stumbling around in the dark! The final picture below was taken using 'night mode' on the iPhone 11, which enables image capture without a flash in low light conditions - it shows the team busily processing one of the captured Woodcocks, with Nigel and his net silhouetted in the background!
Many thanks to Nigel Jones, Simon Ingram and Tommy Saunders for a great evening, and to Tommy's mum for the great cake! We'll hopefully be able to provide some more updates on this project later in the winter.