We need to know these secretive birds better, says Katrina Candy
Monkey III has returned! This is not an announcement of latest big screen simian revolution offering in the Planet of the Apes franchise but I am heralding the return to UK soil of a 325g woodcock which has travelled 4,060 miles to western Russia and back.
Monkey III was ringed in Hampshire on March 18 this year and returned, eight months later, in mid-November to within 5km of the ringing site.
Monkey is just one of three dozen migrant woodcock (Nastasia and Rocky are not far behind and currently crossing through western Europe) that have now been tagged by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust in a pioneering research project which aims to uncover the secrets of this elusive bird of the woods.
GWCT has studied both resident and migratory populations of woodcock, which are “amber-listed” and a bird of conservation concern, for three decades. In February 2012, the charity’s Dr Andrew Hoodless attached miniature satellite tracking devices to woodcock in Cornwall, Norfolk, west Wales and central Scotland and for the first time we gathered a real-time picture of their migration. We can now see where they go, how long they stay there and where they finally settle for the summer. Some of our birds have travelled to breeding grounds as far afield as Latvia, Belarus and Russia. Tagged woodcock have also reached Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, with three birds making the astonishing 4,360 mile journey to Siberia.
Although winter numbers seem as high as ever, regular counts of woodcock organised by GWCT in a number of selected areas across the country have indicated that since 2008, there has been an overall average decline of 2.5 per cent per year of resident birds.
To gain a more comprehensive national picture of this enigmatic bird, scientists from the GWCT together with more than 800 British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) volunteers have just completed the second national survey of breeding woodcock in Britain. This new survey, which repeats a baseline count carried out in 2003, reveals some fascinating findings about their distribution and habitat requirements and crucially, it identifies that more research is needed to ensure a secure future for this mysterious ground-nesting wader bird.
Scotland remains a stronghold for the woodcock – but numbers have dropped from 39,250 males in 2003 to 30,100 in 2013. In England, woodcock numbers are down from 37,330 in 2003 to 24,230 in 2013. Wales continues to support only low numbers of breeding woodcock with 1,770 recorded in 2003 and 910 recorded in 2013.
We know that woodcock have very specific habitat requirements during the breeding season and they are sensitive to habitat change. We don’t fully understand the factors driving the decline but they are likely to include a reduction in woodland management, increased browsing by deer, drying out of woods, maturation of conifer plantations, increased recreational disturbance, climate change and increased predation. This winter we aim to carry out further studies on habitat structure and landscape composition in order to gain a clearer picture.
Until we know what is driving these declines it is important to make sure we are doing everything possible to understand our resident woodcock. And so, GWCT is inviting Scottish bird watchers to play a vital role in the conservation of this secretive bird by volunteering to go out counting woodcock during the early summer months when the males are performing their enigmatic roding (courtship display) activity at dusk to attract receptive females.
Helping with our next phase of research is vital to discover how our resident woodcock are faring so that we can make recommendations on the best way of conserving this fascinating species in the future.
The public can also participate in this excellent piece of research by sponsoring a woodcock (like Monkey III). Supporters can follow the progress of their favourite bird as it migrates from its winter feeding sites in Britain to its breeding grounds across Europe and beyond. Quite a novel Christmas gift for he or she that has everything!
• Katrina Candy is head of PR and education, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. More information on woodcock research and the latest population estimates can be viewed on the GWCT website at www.gwct.org.uk/woodcock. To follow the journey of GWCT’s 36 satellite-tagged woodcock please visit: www.woodcockwatch.com