In the bitter cold, under a starry sky, a glimpse of a bird of mystery

The woodcock may be Britain's most secretive bird, but with the help of a leading expert it's possible to spot them on their nightly rounds

Share

On Tuesday night, high on the Hampshire downland, it was five degrees below zero and, because there was no cloud, and no light pollution from any town, the stars were freezingly bright; they were pin-sharp. Orion blazed across the southern sky, infinitely grander than any triumphant statue, bigger than any skyscraper you will ever stand under; Jupiter was so brilliant it almost cast a shadow. Silence, and blackness, and a million shining points: the Universe was on display. To look up was to be spellbound.

Yet remarkable things were happening down on Earth as well. As Andrew Hoodless swept the dark field with his powerful torch, beadlets of frost in the grass caught the beam and shone like Christmas tree lights; and then there were a couple of beadlets ever so slightly bigger. Andrew could pick them out from 75 yards – long before I could – and focused his torch on them and began to walk down the beam. I followed, and eventually in my binoculars I could see what the larger lights really were: the huge eyes of a woodcock. I saw the domed head, with its transverse stripes, rising out of the frosted grass tufts; I saw the long, long bill. And I was as spellbound as I was by the stars.

There were 17 of them in that field, or at least, 17 which we actually spotted in the torch beam: 17 examples of Britain’s most secretive bird, doing its business at night. Apart from their initial evening flight around their territory, known as roding, woodcock are almost on the same behavioural spectrum as owls, active only during the dark hours, which is why, although everyone knows about owls because of their prominent place in our culture, almost no one knows about woodcock.

Andrew Hoodless does: Dr Hoodless, of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, is Britain’s leading woodcock expert and he was seeking birds he could tag with miniature satellite transmitters, to follow their migration back to Russia. Although we have our own native breeding stock (some tens of thousands of them), every autumn about three quarters of a million woodcock from eastern Europe pour into Britain in pursuit of milder conditions – in really hard winters, it may be as many as a million – and immediately disappear.

Remarkable. A million birds as big as pigeons, which nobody sees. For the woodcock is an evolutionary anomaly, a wader that never wades; a wader of the woodlands. To use the American term, it’s a shorebird, which never goes near the shore – and it hunkers down during the day in deep woodland undergrowth, emerging only after sunset, and flying out to feed in surrounding fields. And then it is Britain’s equivalent of another mysterious bird, the kiwi.

Just like New Zealand’s national emblem, woodcock probe the earth in pitch blackness for worms and insect larvae, with their long, ultra-sensitive bills. Hardly anyone ever gets to glimpse this. I only saw it because Andrew was using (in the cause of science) the technique known to every poacher, “lamping” – dazzling a creature with a powerful light beam and walking towards it unseen, behind the light.

He didn’t manage to catch any, because the night was so still and clear and freezing that the birds eventually heard our footfall’s tiny crunch on the frosted grass, and shot up vertically into the air. The nearest we got was about five yards away. But it was enough for wonderful views, watching them not only squatting down in the grass, but moving about on their legs which seem far too short for their body shape: they scurry like rabbits.

We saw rabbits as well in the torch beam, and hares – their eyes shine bright orange – and a fox. But Scolopax rusticola, whose eyes shine bright white, was the great prize, this mysterious creature that no one gets to see, there in the meadow before us, one after another of them, surrounded by the Christmas tree lights of frost in the grass. In the starlight. Under the great array of the Universe.

I am spellbound still.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker