The past few evenings have been spent sitting out on the hill as part of the GWCT and BTO’s woodcock roding survey, which should be on the “to do” list of anyone who shoots. The survey is not difficult, and it provides a great excuse to get out in the gloaming during two of the nicest months of the year, watching for the display flight of one of our most magical and beloved birds.
Having thoroughly enjoyed a winter of woodcock flighting on the Chayne, it felt odd to be back out during the long, mild evenings. The incessant drone of grasshopper warblers added a strange buzz of life to an evening vigil which, in December and January, is characterised by lifelessness and silence. A pregnant roe doe glided silently through the rushes of a young plantation over the march dyke, but the gathering darkness seemed reluctant to reveal anything in the way of woodcock until a quarter past ten, when a fidgeting shape came bundling out of the gloom forty feet up. A shrill, wet whistle caught my attention before the eerie, hollow croaking confirmed the sighting. The woodcock called twice before vanishing into the wind, leaving a secretive snapshot of behaviour that so many people will simply never see.
I have to visit that site twice more before the end of June, and I have fingers crossed that my subsequent visits will be more fruitful. It looks to be a fantastic spot for breeding woodcock, so perhaps the fact that I only saw one tells a gloomy story. A friend near the Solway is doing his woodcock survey on lowland heath with a reputation for nightjars, so I’ll certainly go down and join him for an evening’s survey in June in the hope of hearing that “churring” call.
It will be no surpise to readers of this blog that the great pleasure I take in shooting has its roots entirely in birds. The more I learn and discover about them, the more they come to dominate my life. I have shot dozens of woodcock during the past fifteen years, but the excitement I feel when I see one breaking back over my gun from a bank of January bracken is precisely the same as following the wild, spooky sound of roding in May. The GWCT and BTO survey is a great chance for shooting folk to get to know their birds. Not only does the research contribute to the conservation of woodcock, but the effort spent getting to know your quarry species is repaid as an addictive pleasure in itself.
The memory of a balmy May evening may be far behind, but when the shoot days come round again and a woodcock emerges from the depths of the birch scrub, you can nod to him in acknowledgement of your own personal, private acquiantanceship.