It’s been interesting to see a large flock of oystercatchers developing on the rough ground below the house. The gang started as a handful of four or five, but there were more than thirty when I drove past this morning. They operate exclusively on a half-acre of heavily poached ground where the farmer fed his herd of luing cattle last winter, and this has gratified my theories about the benefits of winter feeding. It may be that the heavily enriched mishmash of tussocks and turf left over last winter is now functioning as a particular magnet for the birds – an extra under-rated bonus of outdoor cattle.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting the huge variety in winter plumage between individuals in this flock. They all sport their rather unfamiliar white collars, but this “chinstrap” varies between thick, luminous bands to whisky and often incomplete grey smears. Oystercatchers are some of the most instantly recognisable waders in Britain, and they win universal acclaim whether on foreshore or carpark. Casting an eye over their population levels, it’s amazing to realise that for every garishly abundant black and white bird you see probing for worms each day this winter, there could be as many as four woodcock performing precisely the same function by night.
This is the most unfathomable thrill of woodcock – researchers believe that more than a million visitors slip across the North Sea from Scandinavia each year under cover of darkness, and yet they are almost wholly invisible. At this time of year, you can cast a high-powered torch over almost any silage field or pasture in Galloway after dark and see one or two woodcock, and the mind boggles at how many are currently lying up in the birch and brambles within a hundred yards of my office.