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Why woodcocks are so wonderfully weird

There is no getting around it - the woodcock is a most peculiar bird. It croaks like a frog, flies like a bat, has the markings of an owl and is virtually impossible to see.

To add to this sense of eccentricity, the bird lives in totally the wrong place. It is a wader that, rather than inhabiting shores, estuaries and moorland - as all wading birds should, prefers instead to hunker down unseen amidst the forest floor. And just to further confound matters, the bird also boasts an unexpected touch of class. The woodcock's delicate pin feathers, found at the base of the leading primary on each wing, were traditionally used for painting a gold stripe down the sides of Rolls-Royce cars.

Most people will go about their business totally unaware of the daily machinations of the woodcock. With a lot of luck, the zig-zagging bat-like flight of the male can be witnessed at woodland edges on spring evenings as they attract females with their eerie, croaking call.

But early winter is the time when most encounters with this deeply odd bird take place. For the woodcock is truly an international bird of mystery. The UK harbours its own resident population of these giant-eyed, long-beaked, pigeon-sized birds. From November onward, this population is dramatically boosted by tens of thousands of woodcock dropping in from Northern and Eastern Europe as they flee the freezing continental winter. It is estimated that the UK and Ireland's overwintering population of woodcock swells to a figure approaching 1.5 million birds.

From Russia they come in a series of marathon flights to literally drop down anywhere in the UK. On foggy days exhausted and disorientated birds pop up randomly in town centres and back gardens. They quickly disperse into our woodlands, relying on their mottled, owl-like plumage to help them blend with the leaf litter.

The reason we know so much about our wintering woodcocks is down to a groundbreaking scheme to track the movements of these birds on their migration flights. For the past two years, tiny satellite trackers have been fitted to around 40 woodcock to chart the secrets of their journeys. And the results of this scheme have been remarkable. Researchers discovered that the birds fly much further than previously thought.

Dr Andrew Hoodless, Head of Wetland Research at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is behind the project. He explains: "We discovered that these birds covered extraordinary distances. While the majority of birds have migrated between 3,000-3,500 km (1,875-2,188 miles), three birds have flown 6,180-7,100 (3,860-4,440 miles) to breed in central Siberia.

"This was completely unexpected and would never have been detected without the satellite tagging."

Tracking revealed that the birds migrated to the UK in a series of long, fast flights of 600-1,100 km (375-690 miles). These mammoth efforts were broken up with breaks of one to two weeks. Woodcocks, it seems, are conservative in their habits, returning to the very same breeding and overwintering spot year after year. And the woodcock is no slouch; the satellites revealed they reach speeds of nearly 60 miles per-hour. The team are expecting between six and eight birds to return back to the UK this winter. The first returnee, named Monkey III, arrived back in Hampshire in mid-November. Amy, Rocky and Nastasia are the next tagged birds expected back before Christmas.

But just why are busy scientists fitting satellites to small, obscure birds? Dr Hoodless explains: "The project was set up because, in Britain and Ireland we host at least 10 per cent of the total European woodcock population in winter and yet we had very little idea of the origins or migration routes of Woodcock wintering here. I also wanted to understand the migration strategy of woodcock."

Gathering data may also help explain why the bird has suffered a population fall. Surveys revealed a decline in the UK's resident woodcock population. There were 78,000 males recorded in 2003 - a number which fell to 55,000 in 2013. Climate change, human disturbance and habitat loss are all believed to be contributory factors. The woodcock has been hunted and eaten since Roman times and is still shot for game across the UK today.

But happily, woodcocks still occur in such numbers over the winter that a meeting with the wonderful weirdo of the woods is still a real possibility.

For more information on the woodcock Watch project, visit woodcockwatch.com

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