Country diary: a telltale sign of the elusive woodcock

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Down in the valley near my house, a single feather lies camouflaged among last year’s oak leaves. It’s the richer tones that catch my eye, the hint of sheen. I put it carefully in my pocket so that the barbs don’t separate and take it home to paint. A woodcock feather the length of my thumb, its glossy central rachis makes a graceful curve like a curlew’s bill. Peaty brown, it has a grey tip fading to silver, and small triangles of muted orange make regular marks along its outer edge.

In painting this feather, I notice so much more: the delicate apricot shade behind its pale tip, the soft down around the calamus, its hollow base. I find it hard to get the depth of colour, so I pile on layers of pen, paint and a 6B pencil. This is a tail feather, part of a barred plumage of earthy browns of tan, honey, russet and umber that enable woodcock, Scolopax rusticola, to hide in plain sight among the leaf litter. Often its black eye is the only thing that gives it away.

On my winter walks, woodcocks would sometimes explode out of a gorse bush to zigzag across the field. Hiding in undergrowth by day, they are mostly nocturnal, with our year-round birds joined by others from northern Europe. Stocky and plump, they have long, straight beaks to probe the ground for earthworms and beetles.

There’s been a severe decline in resident woodcocks; they are now on the UK’s “birds of conservation concern” red list. Breeding in our valley, they begin their evening display flights in April. I step outside the back door at dusk, listening to the clattering racket of pheasants off to roost. It quietens and I strain my ears to listen – and there! Strange noises, the squeaking of a mouse, the croaking of a frog, but from high up, where the trees are silhouetted against the last of the light.

Patrolling the bounds of his territory, it’s a roding woodcock. Secretive, elusive, yet I feel more connected to it through that single feather.

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