Proper winter at last arrived shortly after Christmas, with days of blue skies and sunshine, albeit that there was not much heat in evidence despite the brightness emanating from our life-giving star. Overnight, Jack Frost’s labours were there for all to see, with a thick rime of hoarfrost whitening the landscape and belatedly hinting therefore of that elusive and rare white Christmas. Underfoot the ground was rock hard and not surprisingly traffic around the bird-table has noticeably heightened. On the in-shore waters of the loch, thin skins of ice floated among the otherwise still waters, here and there breaking the glassy surface into irregular stripes and disrupting the otherwise upside down mirror-like reflections of the surrounding snow-capped hills and mountains. Pristine!
A solitary goldeneye paddled by, skirting past an apology for an ice flow before with a gentle plop, it arced under the waters in its search for morsels of invertebrate food. I mused on the likelihood that somewhere distant to the north or east of here, its homeland would inevitably be considerably less hospitable. In Arctic regions for instance, rather than thin skins of ice there are now probably thick slabs and no opportunity whatsoever to dive in search of food. That is why they come here in the first place of course, to escape the perma-frost that literally locks up all food sources for them.
The scattered wintering population of goldeneye are the relative few amongst the many, for in numbers at least, we are quietly inundated by considerable populations of winter migrating birds, seeking here in our Gulf Stream warmed islands, relief from the rigours of a winter they could not survive at home. In many ways, these winter visitors are relatively anonymous although the more obvious among them, such as the very vocal skeins of geese and the chattering classes of fieldfares and redwings, are always easy to identify. These Scandinavian thrushes seem unusually scarce this year. Have some of their wandering hordes by-passed us to travel beyond here to the south-western parts of the Continent I wonder?
Among these temporary winter residents are woodcock, which depend on an ability to recover invertebrate food from deep underground which they probe for with their exceptionally long beaks. With the kind of below zero temperatures that are to be found in their more northerly homelands, the ground is clearly utterly unyielding and their only means of survival, like the goldeneye, is to up sticks and translocate. They say that ‘falls of woodcock’ occur along our eastern seaboard, often at All Hallows, when tradition tells us they all arrive as one. Other traditions claim that other migrating birds such as short-eared owls and goldcrests ‘pilot’ the woodcock here whilst even more unlikely is the old belief that woodcock migrate here from the moon!
The certainty is that once they get here, they disperse and indeed become even more anonymous than most of the other winter migrating birds. Few birds are quite as well camouflaged and so few are able to disappear before your very eyes in the manner of a woodcock when it settles among the fallen leaves of a woodland floor. And whilst native woodcock are well known for the ‘roding’ flight they perform at dusk on summer evenings, during which they croak and squeak, the immigrant winter birds remain demurely silent.
However on days such as these, when the frost effectively applies a kind of cement to the ground, life here suddenly becomes almost as difficult for them as it would in their native land. It is therefore in these conditions that we are more likely to see them and in particular, I frequently find them lurking beside roads, which have been treated with salt and grit. Happily for the woodcock, the roadside verges are also softened by the salt and provide a rare opportunity for the woodcock to explore them for invertebrate life when all other sources are sealed and impenetrable. However, such roadside sorties can put the birds at considerable risk from passing traffic.
It was not passing traffic however that brought me into very close contact with a woodcock a day or two ago. A young neighbour turned up at my door with a bundle of feathers. It was a woodcock he had found, not near the road but instead in one of our local woods. Close examination revealed apparent problems with its beak, which implied that it had sustained some sort of impact. The upshot was that the bird seemed unable to eat. Whilst our concern was clearly for the welfare of the bird, its arrival provided a rare opportunity to examine the plumage which gives it such magnificent powers of obfuscation and at the same time better understand the physiology of the bird.
To those who enjoy field sports, woodcock are of course, among the most challenging of game birds with their fast and erratic flight pattern. This clearly is a bird that is very definitely hunted as opposed to a hunter, it eyes set literally on the side of its head to give it all round the compass vision, a feature which in tradition was taken to mean the bird to be unintelligent. Indeed in the past, the term woodcock was freely used as a description of someone thought to be a bit thick, the theory being there was little or no room for a brain between those wide set eyes! Sadly the woodcock, on close inspection, had sustained injuries to either its long beak or the tissues supporting it, which quickly proved fatal and. in the event, it really had no chance of survival.
The plumage of the woodcock is of course, especially delicately patterned, hence the remarkable ability to merge with its background. Significantly, the plumage of male and female is indistinguishable, whereas the male and female, drake and duck, of the goldeneye seen on the loch differs markedly. Indeed, the difference between the drake and its potential mate is considerable. The male is striking with its apparent black and white plumage, which on closer inspection is not quite as monochrome as it may appear. In fact, although his white body plumage at the bird’s waterline is indeed unmistakable, his head is really a dark, bottle green. Notably prominent is the white cheek spot, set on the side of what is a particularly blocky head and again closer inspection reveals the feature that gives the bird its name, the golden eyes. The female shares this feature as well as the blocky profile but otherwise she is very different with her russet head and wing-tips and grey body.
Already, preliminary courtship is being practised by the scattering of goldeneye which have chosen the local loch as their winter playground, with the drakes throwing their heads back and scrabbling away at the water with their feet. Such activity may seem somewhat premature at this moment in time, as it will be some months before these birds return to their northern breeding grounds. Yet with the slowly increasing hours of daylight, the day will eventually come when these wintering visitors are impelled by an urge to return to their native heaths, the goldeneye to its lonely northern forests and the unseen woodcock … to the moon?