It was an odd experience to flight woodcock at dusk last night when it was mild enough to stand in a waistcoat and shirt with the sleeves rolled up, then flight wigeon at dawn this morning in some of the most miserable, bone aching conditions I can ever remember on the Solway. It’s as if the night was made up of two halves; one balmy and soft, the other determined to see off my fingers and toes.
I tried the woodcock in a new spot last night and am still struggling to find a pattern to their behaviour. It was so still that if you closed your eyes, you could have imagined that you were indoors. With pigeons and geese, this can mean that they keep well up and far out of range, but some of the woodcock were coming out of the stacked brash of a recently felled area of sitka spruce trees at little more than shoulder height. Every time I think I have discovered some rule or system to follow in my quest to master woodcock flighting, I receive a totally unexpected curve-ball which sets me back to stage one. It won’t be the last time I will be totally thrashed into humility by these fantastically unpredictable magicians, and part of me considers it all part of the experience. I had no warning that they were coming as the black silhouettes came whirring out from the broken wreckage of brash and stacked timber, and four had passed by before I even managed to get a shot off. Scoop was looking at me curiously, wondering why her master kept twitching suddenly and then swearing. When I did manage a shot, it was at a bird moving so quickly towards me that I saw the paper wadding pass in a blur about a foot below the determined figure. Woodcock are known for being very quiet on the wing, and while there are times when they seem almost ghost-like, they certainly do cause an audible ripple in the air as they pass just inches away from your ears.
It’s worth mentioning that during the wait for the first woodcock to appear, two ravens appeared over the clear fell and pumped their ragged wings noisily in the stillness. Homing in on a stand of leggy sitkas which somehow survived the saws and cutters, they set off on a long and complicated conversation involving all sorts of squeaks, clicks and pops that I have never heard a raven make before. Something about the hollow calls ringing around the fallen plantation gave the evening a sinister, melancholy air and I was pleased when the first woodcock appeared to spice up the gloomy atmosphere.
By the time I was home, the stars were prickling sharply against the sky. Twelve hours later, they had been consumed by a thin veil of mist which hung over the loch behind the house. There had been a hard frost, and as I went out to the car with a saucepan of warm water to defrost the windscreen, a barn owl rasped somewhere down in the darkness. Dog fed and coffee made, I was soon on the short road down to the Solway where a friend was waiting near our usual spot next to the salty mud. Even as the mist thickened and the occasional fat drop of condensation fell onto the ash leaves from the silhouetted twigs above, there was the sound of activity from the water. With a drip forming on the end of my nose, the first of the returning wigeon came searing back from their ponds and splashes inland. They passed in small groups overhead, wings ripping the darkness and whooping giddily like red indians. Now and again there was the growling bark of hen birds, combined with the wet bleep of teal. Occasionally the moving birds would appear close enough for a shot, but luck was not with us. A lone teal came flashing past from the left and then motored vertically upwards as our shots blazed uselessly past it. It was not a morning to be a wildfowler, and the only birds who offered even the slightest hint of promise were goldeneye. I prefer not to shoot those foul-tasting sea men, and it gives me much more pleasure to see them tilt their white cheeks smartly in the gloom, darting down into the muddy depths for some scrap or other.
By nine o’clock the sun had risen but you would never had known it. It was painfully cold and perfectly apparent that there would be no more shooting. The dispersing mist left nothing but a bitter numbness. We headed into town for a fry-up at the greasy spoon, then I took Scoop home for a walk. Having cheated her out of a swim, I thought she deserved a wander through the rushes. It gave me plenty of time to think about the night which started cool and gentle and ended like a knife between the ribs. I hadn’t brought anything home in the game bag, but that didn’t matter in the slightest.