Love is in the air, along with the elusive and weird woodcock
"This is a perfect place to see roding woodcock - but it's the only time of year you'll have the chance. These must be one of the most difficult birds to spot." Richard Knight, an RSPB warden, was standing by the edge of a wood in the Elan Valley in mid-Wales with amateur naturalists drawn by the rare chance to see one of Britain's strangest birds.

Woodcock are inland members of the wader family and like their more familiar shore-line cousins, use their long beaks to probe for invertebrates. By day they hide in woods, venturing into nearby pastures at night to rummage for worms, larvae and small insects. Those habits, combined with superb camouflage, make them very hard to observe. Normally the best one can expect is a clatter of wing beats as the bird leaves the leaf mould and disappears rapidly with a jinking flight.

Although Dr Andrew Hoodless, a lowland gamebird research scientist at the Game Conservancy, studied the species for his thesis, he rarely saw his subjects, instead tracking them by radio. "From October to April they only really feed at night," he said. "And even during the summer they're rarely seen far from cover."

Now is an ideal time to catch a glimpse of this elusive bird, however, as the males patrol their territories at dusk. That is known as "roding" and consists of adult males, performing the avian equivalent of kerb-crawling. They fly slowly and deliberately around the perimeters of their territories, uttering a succession of clicks and croaks to attract females. When one appears, they mate quickly, and the male then continues his patrol.

Successful male woodcock mate with several females. The fathers play no part in the rearing of the chicks, but the mothers appear to make up for this with the endearing habit of ferrying their chicks away from danger, flying with the young between their feet.

Unfortunately woodcock appear to be yet another species in decline. According to the latest British Trust for Ornithology survey, numbers declined by 37 per cent between the late Sixties and late Eighties. But Dr Hoodless maintains that changes in methodology of counting woodcock make direct comparisons almost impossible.

The birds prefer deciduous woodland with an under-storey of plants such as ground elder or bluebells to protect them from predators. Even so, Dr Hoodless says, they are vulnerable to aerial attack, and increased raptor numbers since the Sixties may have affected populations. "Several of my study birds were taken by female sparrowhawks in April and May," he said.

Whatever the overall picture, the birds remain relatively common, with an estimated 8,500 to 21,500 "pairs", and are widely distributed through the country - although they are largely absent from Cornwall, Devon and much of the Cotswolds. No one knows quite why that should be so, but Dr Hoodless suggests it could be linked to the availability of suitable copses. In areas such as Derbyshire, numbers can rise to 18-22 per square kilometre.

Fortunately for Richard Knight's party, the Elan Valley is densely populated. As the group waited patiently between sunset and nightfall, a male appeared. The first sign was a distant clicking sound, followed by a strange croaking, as the squat, round-winged bird flew overhead just above the tree line. He made three circuits of the valley and it was only when it became too dark to follow his progress that the watchers turned back to their cars.

Daniel Butler

For information on where to see woodcock contact your local Wildlife Trust - for details, call the Wildlife Trust central office on 01522 544 400.