Winter Woodcock

The woodcock (Scolopax rusticola, Cyffylog) is similar in its general shape and appearance to the snipe, which is a more familiar bird to many people accustomed to watching them feed from bird hides overlooking scrapes and reedbeds.

Like the snipe, it has a distinctively long, tapering bill. However, the woodcock is a significantly larger bird (about pigeon sized) with short legs. Its wonderfully russet cryptic camouflage makes it almost impossible to spot when it is sitting tight in its favourite spot- on the woodland floor, amongst dead leaves. A potentially vulnerable place to be, the location of its eyes, set high and far back on its head, gives the bird exceptional 360° vision to be sure it can escape approaching ground predators.

Woodcock by Margaret Holland

Woodcock by Margaret Holland

Although it is resident in the UK, numbers increase almost ten times in the winter, with a net inward movement of birds from Russia and Scandinavia, making them a much more common sight at this time of year.

Its wide range and relatively high numbers (global population estimated at 15-16 million) means that it is not considered threatened globally, but they are amber listed in the UK. Their secretive nature means that many people are unaware of their presence- despite the fact that, in winter, they actually outnumber snipe in the UK.

Woodcock are largely nocturnal, and so you are only likely to see them during daylight hours if you accidentally flush them from the dense cover where they rest up during the day. At this time of year, we frequently flush them into the air as we walk through our reserves during weekly volunteer workparties and site visits- they burst, a flurry of russet feathers, from the woodland floor or rushes a few metres from your feet, zig-zagging away from you through the air before dropping back down to safety on the ground.

Since they tend to be flushed from close to you and from the ground, their large size is clear, and the clattering noise of their wings will always draw attention to them even though they do not call as they are flushed.

With their long bills woodcock can feed on many invertebrates in soft ground, penetrating deep in search of their prey, which can include anything from caterpillars and worms to beetles and spiders. Their dependence on soft ground makes them vulnerable in harsh winters when long periods of hard-frozen ground can leave them short of food.

So next time you are out in your local woods, or walking through rough grassland, keep your ears and eyes peeled for this amazing bird, a glimpse of which is a real winter privilege.