On our regular lamping trips around the farm, we began to notice woodcock in the torchlight. One in particular could always be found in the same spot at the same time, blinking unhappily in the brightness. The light completely dazzled him, and he would stare with a vacant expression for a time before crossing his wings behind his back and bumbling off like a drunk person who is prepared to swear blind that he is perfectly capable of taking care of himself.
Over the last weekend in October, the skies seemed to open and woodcock fell out. It was as if God had said “Let there be woodcock”, and with a grand sweeping gesture dropped hundreds of long-beaked, confused looking birds onto southern Scotland.
The open fields at the back of the farm were suddenly alive with their little silhouettes, and I have since been told that they particularly like to fly during clear nights during the full moon, explaining their sudden appearance on that date. Whereas before we would see two or three woodcock and a half dozen snipe feeding in the wet grass, we started to see dozens. Individuals would burst up to flutter in the light beam, and little knots of three or four would stand together as if they had been caught doing something that they shouldn’t have.
Within the space of three days, it was over again. Numbers slipped back to four or five a night, although our old friend remained, toddling along through the grass. A month later they came back again, and I decided to find out more about them. If they were feeding on the farm in numbers by night, they might present the chance for a shot during the day.
It is really very hard to learn about woodcock. There are no good practical guides available, and the internet is not at all forthcoming with relevant facts. Most of the ‘keepers that I asked about woodcock are content to look at the birds as a bonus, not paying much attention to their preferences in habitat or feeding grounds. It was obvious from the start that, when they passed through, the birds roosted in the surrounding woodland and came on to the Chayne to feed by night, but where the resident population lived throughout the year was anyone’s guess.