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Country diary: brief encounter with a woodcock in the wildwood

Coundon burn, meandering through trees
Coundon burn, meandering through Auckland park. Photograph: Phil Gates


The flow of Coundon burn is constricted by farmland and by a tunnel under a road and disused railway embankment for much of its course, but once inside Auckland park it remains free to meander for the final half-mile before joining the river Gaunless, close to its confluence with the Wear.

Here this minor tributary has carved a narrow valley clothed in lichen-encrusted hawthorn and draped in bramble and wild rose, in places an almost impenetrable habitat, whose value to wildlife is out of all proportion to its size. Alder thrives in the wetter places while ancient oaks and beeches stand guard on higher ground.

A hawthorn throws its shadow across a burn.
A hawthorn throws its shadow across Coundon burn. Photograph: Phil Gates

Today it had the air of unkempt wildwood, with gnarled, leafless branches reaching out like those menacing trees in Arthur Rackham fairytale illustrations.

I walked down into a pool of frosty air and deep shadows, towards the sound of trickling water. Ravenous redwings fed on the haws overhead, calling as they moved from tree to tree. A flock of long-tailed tits passed through, acrobats hanging from twigs in search of morsels. So I was looking upwards when something rose from under my feet: a woodcock.

I recognised it only in its manner of leaving, a fleeting, silent presence zig-zagging away through the trees.

I have only once had a good view of a woodcock at rest, and that will probably remain a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That bird was most likely a newly arrived autumn migrant from Russia, too exhausted to take flight and with no alternative but to trust in cryptic plumage that hid it among fallen autumn leaves. It seemed dead until its eye, like polished jet, blinked. Only when I touched a wing did it shuffle a little before settling back into the leaf litter.

Woodcock, Scolopax rusticola. Mottled brown plumage makes it hard to spot among fallen leaves
Woodcock, Scolopax rusticola. Mottled brown plumage makes it hard to spot among fallen leaves. Photograph: Phil Gates

Today’s woodcock was an ethereal presence, appearing so suddenly and vanishing so fast that I was tempted to wonder whether I had imagined it. There was a sense of disbelief that I had been so close, a clumsy intruder among this wild tangle of trees.

But then, many of the most memorable wildlife encounters are like that; unexpected, brief, heart-thumping revelations that remain etched in the memory, far removed from the meticulously crafted storytelling of a wildlife documentary.

Follow Country diary on Twitter: @gdncountrydiary

This article titled "Country diary: brief encounter with a woodcock in the wildwood" was written by Phil Gates, for The Guardian on Thursday 7 December 2017 05.30am

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