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Winter Wildlife: How heavy snow brought one of Europe’s most elusive birds, the woodcock, out of hiding

‘Woodcock Flush’, painted by Robert E Fuller.

The birds that are hardest to observe usually give me the greatest rewards and the woodcock is of Europe’s most elusive birds. Essentially a wader, its plumage, an intricately patterned palette of russets, fawns, greys and blacks, is seamlessly camouflaged with the leaf litter of a woodland floor where it takes cover during the day, making it virtually impossible to observe. When disturbed, woodcock will break cover only at the last minute. Their flight is fast and erratic as they chink through the trees to make their escape. This makes studying them even more difficult as an encounter is mostly by chance and fleeting.

As night falls woodcock will fly out into fields to probe the soft earth, with its long, flexible beak, for worms and other invertebrates. But of course, the darkness acts as another cloak of disguise to frustrate a would-be observer like me. Although we do have a resident population of woodcock in the UK, numbers swell in winter when more birds fly in from Scandinavia to escape the harsher weather there. So your chances of seeing them are greater at this time. Although, again, its mottled brown plumage blends so well with winter leaf litter that it usually remains elusive.

But wildlife is easier to spot after heavy snowfall and the big freeze of 2010 gave me an advantage over this enigmatic wader for the first time and I managed to actually watch one in broad daylight. It was on a bright morning of sunshine after a night of heavy snow. The snow meant that no visitors were going to be able to reach the gallery, so I set off in my car with my camera, looking for inspiration for a painting that will become this year’s Christmas card. I knew that fresh water would be scarce because the worms it survives on were underneath more than a foot of snow. So I headed to a small pool in a valley bottom near Thixendale, not far from the road.

Not surprisingly, it was frozen solid. But there was a small area of fresh water and soft mud where spring water flowed in and out of the pool and where it was protected from the frost by a willow tree. This was the only fresh water, and unfrozen ground, in the area. As I pulled up I could see that, as I had suspected, it was a wildlife hotspot. I watched as a flock of fieldfares, blackbirds and a charm of goldfinches flew in to drink.

And then I spotted it: the unmistakable silhouette against the snow and the long bill that I had hoped for. I grabbed my binoculars to check. Yes it was definitely a woodcock and as I scanned across the rest of the pool I spotted another one – bingo! My hunch had been right. And then I came across its smaller cousins – a pair of snipe feeding on the mud by the pool. Although the road was close by, the birds were too far away to photograph. I needed to set up a hide close by.

I knew I would have to work fast, if the weather got warmer the birds would disperse. But I didn’t want to disturb the birds as they fed during the day in these difficult conditions. So, although less than ideal, I set off that evening to construct a hide. In spite of being slowed down by a snow blizzard I had completed the hide by midnight. The next morning, I was ready for action. Wearing seven layers of clothes, to fend off the freezing conditions, I entered the hide prepared for a day long vigil.

As I approached, I saw a woodcock and snipe fly away. My heart sank. It wasn’t easy being light-footed in deep snow, loaded down with 25kg of camera equipment and a day of provisions. There was nothing for it but to sit and wait, hoping the woodcock would return. The first bird to appear was a field fare. It made a good photographic model to pass the time. Then as I looked out I got a tantalising glimpse of a bird I thought was a woodcock, but as I reached for my binoculars it disappeared round a corner in the stream. It reappeared a moment later. A snipe.

I photographed it all the same, even getting shots of it bathing and preening. As darkness started to fall my chance of photographing the woodcock had gone for the day. So I headed home, my feet like blocks of ice. The next morning I ventured out to the hide again, hoping for better luck and wearing an extra pair of socks. After two-and-a-half-hours there was still no sign of the woodcock, or the snipe. Luckily the fieldfares kept me entertained once more along with a great spotted woodpecker and some bullfinches.

I was beginning to lose hope of getting woodcock shots at all when I spotted one at last just where the spring emerged. I watched as the woodcock deftly prodded the earth for worms. Its long bill disappeared completely into the soft ground. Once it had hold of a worm, it slowly teased it out of the ground, sometimes pausing for some time to get a better grip with its serrated beak. It fed continually for two and a half hours.

As it walked, it bobbed up and down in the most unusual and exaggerated way. It was a sort of body-rock jig timed with the motion of the water. Some say that this ‘bobbing’ is to attract worms up, a sort of rain dance, but many other waders and dippers do this when close to water. I have never seen a woodcock act so naturally before. It came nearer still and I finally got some close up photos of this super bird. A loud chattering shattered the peace. Field fares alarm-called as a male sparrowhawk rushed over the top of my hide.

It was in hot pursuit of one of the fieldfares that I had been watching. Both disappeared down the valley, the sparrowhawk matching its prey’s every move as it twisted and turned through the branches. The woodcock froze with its head down until the danger passed, before continuing to feed. It was a real privilege to spend a weekend watching the birds coming and going from the pool. But the highlight was undoubtedly watching such a secretive and largely nocturnal bird just a few miles from my own home in the middle of the day.

I am exhibiting a new collection of paintings inspired by wildlife in winter at my gallery in Thixendale from November 4th-26th. Click on the link below for more information.

My Christmas Exhibition will Focus on Wildlife in Winter

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