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Woodcock Wanderings

The Woodcock, there is no doubt is a mysterious bird. During the winter they hide away all day in large, damp, mature woodland relying wholly on their impeccable camouflage to keep them hidden and safe. At dusk (and we’re talking about 10 minuets before total darkness), they pluck up the courage to leave their day-time roots and head out to feed all the way through the night. With both these factors in mind, it would be sensible to say that not many people get to see a Woodcock. Not only are they shy, but cryptic too and shrouded in myth with the tiny Goldcrest adopting the nickname ‘the Woodcock Pilot’ as stories explained how they would arrive in from mainland Europe on the back of Woodcock arriving for the winter.

Yet, despite they’re secrecy, recently we’ve learning more and more about this species in Poole Harbour having studied their over-wintering population and by developing a new high tech surveying and ringing strategy.

Woodcock are now an almost absent breeder in Poole Harbour with the last known breeding pair to be found at Holton Lee. Their breeding population is also declining nationally and was recently estimated to be around c75,000 pairs which is a worrying 76% decline. Sadly they’re still legally shot despite this decline and their preferred breeding habitats are also under threat. However each winter numbers are swollen by arrivals from mainland Europe and Russia with an estimated 800,0000 – 1.4 million birds arriving, many coinciding their arrival with the first full moon of November. During the winter of 2013/14 we commissioned Nick Hopper to carry out a full Poole Harbour over-wintering Woodcock survey. The survey would see Nick monitoring and surveying all suitable Woodcock feeding grounds within our Poole Harbour area, as well as recognising dusk and dawn flight lines to and from their roots. Up until then it was unknown exactly how many over-wintering Woodcock resided in the harbour but after 6 long months of dawn and late night surveying an incredible 644 birds were found just in Poole Harbour….far higher than any of us were expecting.

Stour Ringing Group has actively been trying to track down and ring Woodcock within Poole Harbour for several years with limited success. Both lamping and mist net techniques have been successful but numbers of birds caught and ringed has only averaged around 10-15 Woodcock per winter. However, at the beginning of the 2016/17 winter period (October 2016) a new thermal imaging scope loaned by the Birds of Poole Harbour charity has revolutionised the way we now target and catch this species. What used to be a long arduous process at times, bumbling around in the dark with a torch looking for feeding Woodcock has now become a quick and more systematic process as one glace through the ‘TI’ scope allows us to see where birds are feeding instantly. With more birds now being seen and with our catching technique now up to speed in just two and a half months the Stour Ringing group have now already caught and ringed just under 60 new Woodcock which is fantastic.

The purpose for our ringing activities and this type of research is to a) prove winter site fidelity meaning, are Woodcock coming back to the same spots to feed year after year?….well, yes some certainly are. Some even to within the same 3m square patch of field! b) to find out what type of habitats they’re preferring to feed in during the winter which allows us to work on any future protection planning and c) to learn where Woodcock are most abundant so we can inform and let landowners know their land is an important over-wintering feeding ground for Woodcock because lets be honest, unless a landowner is wondering around in the dead of night with a torch and TI scope there’s no way they could know! The hope is to have caught and ringed 100 new Woodcock by the end of March 2017 within the Poole Harbour area, whether this is possible is still yet to be seen but there’s no doubt that by monitoring and learning about their winter ecology we could be playing a small but vital part in helping our UK breeding population. 

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