Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Woodcock: the search concludes


This Woodcock, picked up apparently unharmed in central London, was released in Alexandra Park on 15 March last year, but was later found dead. Would there be a happier outcome in the search for the species today?

Just as we thought the thaw had come, the snow returned overnight. I couldn't get the car out again today, so at the last minute it was on shank's pony into a very wintry-looking Alexandra Park. I walked the fruitless Woodcock walk through the mid-slope copses, trudging from bramble to beech in an effort to find one. Another set of footprints in the snow caught my attention, but they turned out to belong to David Callahan, who texted me with news that he had just found ... a Woodcock.

I rushed to the site and did three careful circuits, pausing briefly only to exchange pleasantries with its resident homeless person, who had woken from his slumber in the freezing cold and was hanging out his bedding to air on branches, despite the driving snow. He says he has enough food. But definitely no Woodcocks visible here, or at the stream where we found footprints at the weekend, and where the only brown creature showing well was a rat. My first two Stock Doves of the year nearby were scant reward, but at least I have now reached the 50-species mark here since 1 January.

To paraphrase Jonathan Lethbridge's comments on Woodcock, they can be likened to trouble - don't go looking for them, because eventually they will probably find you. But tired of waiting for them to show, I conceived a change of strategy this evening and emailed the other local birders - anyone fancy braving a night-time visit to the park to try and find one out feeding? I say brave, because it is not entirely advisable to be in Alexandra Park after dark using phrases like "It's hard getting Woodcock" for reasons which I can't go into here. But suffice to say, there are probably safer places.

Then, at about 9.40 pm, no more than 20 minutes after I sent the email, the phone rang. "Dom, I'm with Gareth at the cricket pitches - he's found two Woodcock." Bob Watt's astonishing news saw me out of the door in moments, dicing the thawing ice on the hill and speeding round to the other side of the park, where the three of us then watched two birds shuffling and probing in the snow before they spotted us, or the prowling Fox that ran past us, and took to the wing. Truly stunning.

A short while afterwards we picked them up again further away, interacting with the same or another Fox, and it was amazing to watch them in the artifically light night with so much snow cover. It was an unforgettable moment enjoying a new species for my park list (excluding last year's released bird shown above). Moments after the Woodcock sighting, a Tawny Owl in a nearby tree was the icing on the cake.

Patch ticks for the year, for the record:
50. Stock Dove.
51. Woodcock.
52. Tawny Owl.

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