The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
Close up portrait of a Woodcock
Woodcock sat in the leaves
The highly elusive Woodcock, foraging for food on the forest floor
Eurasian woodcock, European woodcock
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
33cm to 35cm
55cm to 65cm
240g to 420g
Eurasian woodcocks are stocky wading birds in the sandpiper family, with a long straight tapered bill and relatively short legs.
Their large brown eyes are set far back on the sides of the head, which gives them an improved peripheral vision so they are able to sense the presence of nearby predators.
Their plumage is highly mottled, allowing them to blend into their woodland surroundings. Their upperparts are reddish brown with darker brown markings across their rounded wings.
Underparts are buff and streaked with darker barrings. Their crown features black bars, and a cheek stripe runs from their bill to the back of their head crossing the eye.
Female and male woodcocks are alike in markings and size, although in females the tail is slightly shorter and the bill marginally longer.
Juvenile woodcocks look very similar to adults, although their foreheads are more speckled.
Close up of a Eurasian Woodcock
Woodcocks are roughly the same size as woodpigeons, and are bulky, rounded birds, shorter in stature than many other wading birds due to their short legs. Females and males are the same size.
Woodcocks can be pretty hard to spot, as they tend to blend in with their natural habitats
During the breeding season, male woodcocks engage in an elaborate and noisy courtship ritual known as roding. They fly over their territories at first light and again at dusk, making a series of grunts and squeaks, attempting to attract a mate and competing with other nearby males.
A common call of a woodcock sounds almost like a frog croaking, accompanied by higher pitched squeak.
Woodcocks are also known for their owl-like flight, with whirring wingbeats that echo through their woodland habitats at night.
Woodcocks eat invertebrates, and their main sources of food include earthworms and spiders, as well as beetles, caterpillars, fly larvae and small snails. In spring, some plant matter is eaten, especially seeds, fruit, peas, grains, roots and grasses.
Woodcocks drum the earth with their feet to attract worms to the surface, and then probe the soil with their long bills.
Woodcock chicks self feed from a very early stage, and eat mainly spiders and earthworms.
Close up of a Woodcock eating a earthworm
Woodcocks breed in damp woodland environments, where dense undergrowth covers much of the woodland floor.
Their main prey is earthworms, and they seek foraging sites with soils that are easy to penetrate, for example along streams, in orchards, hedgerows and marshes. Young conifer plantations are also a prime habitat for woodcocks.
Eurasian woodcocks’ breeding range extends from the Canary Islands and Azores in the west, across northern and central Europe and Asia as far as Japan in the west. Woodcocks that breed in France and the UK are typically resident in these countries all year round.
Woodcocks are migratory across much of their eastern and northern range and their winter range of woodcocks stretches from Portugal and the UK in the west, across parts of Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands in northern Europe.
To the south, Italy, Greece, coastal regions of Turkey, isolated parts of the North African coast all welcome visiting woodcocks in winter months, and the species’ non-breeding range extends into Asia, with parts of India, south-eastern China and South East Asia.
Population statistics estimate that as many as 10 million woodcock pairs live in Russia, the country with the highest number of woodcocks.
Other countries with high woodcock populations include Belarus, with up to 240,000 pairs, Finland, with up to 200,000 pairs, and Sweden, where up to 100,000 woodcocks live.
Spot the well camouflaged Woodcock
In the UK, there are around 55,000 breeding pairs of woodcocks, fairly widespread throughout the country. However, the species has a reputation as being rather elusive birds that prefer to stay hidden out of view, and with their nocturnal feeding habits, they are not usually active in daylight hours.
In winter, the population of woodcocks increases to around 1.4 million birds, offering a greater likelihood of spotting one while the numbers are temporarily inflated by visiting woodcocks.
Woodcocks breed throughout England, Wales and Scotland, but are most common and widespread in northern regions, in lowland regions of Scotland.
However, important populations are also present in southern England, including heath-covered woodlands in Hampshire, Dorset, Kent, Sussex and Surrey. No breeding occurs in Devon and Cornwall, although woodcocks arrive in these regions each winter.
Close up portrait of a Woodcock amongst the autumn leaves
The average lifespan of a woodcock is 1.8 years. However, individuals are known to occasionally reach 7 years, as seen in recovered ringed birds.
Like other ground-nesting bird species, woodcocks are vulnerable to predation by foxes, stoats, sparrowhawks and tawny owls, while their eggs and young are commonly attacked by jays, carrion crows, squirrels, mice, hedgehogs and birds of prey.
Woodcocks are game birds, and can legally be hunted during the open season which runs from October 1 (September 1 in Scotland) until January 31. Outside of this period, it is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, to knowingly kill, injure or capture a woodcock.
Although across their entire range, woodcocks are numerous and considered a species of least concern, their numbers are declining in the UK and they are classed with Red status in the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Loss of habitat, particularly grasslands used by wintering birds and the number of coniferous plantations reaching maturity, is feared to be a factor in falling numbers.
Woodcock in flight, pictured from below
Woodcocks use ground-level nests, forming a shallow scrape up to 5 cm (2 in) deep hidden by vegetation and roughly lined with grass, dry leaves and feathers.
A typical woodcock clutch contains between 2 and 5 eggs, which are pale buff-pinkish-brown in colour and heavily marked with red-brown spots. Eggs measure 44.2 mm by 33.5 mm, and are incubated for around 22 days by the female alone.
Woodcock pairs only stay together for the briefest period, around three to four days, and do not raise their young together.
The nest of a Woodcock with four eggs inside
Woodcocks are solitary birds and tend to be territorial during the breeding season, using a dramatic, loud flight display to see off any rival males.
Woodcocks roost during the day, and are active at night, foraging in pastures and meadows for earthworms and other invertebrate prey. During the day, they roost in woodland clearances that offer a good all-round view of any approaching ground predators.
While the UK’s woodcock population is largely sedentary, in winter many birds may shift temporarily to lower altitude landscapes further south.
Most of the woodcocks in the UK are resident here throughout the year, but in winter the native population is joined by overwintering migrants from Russia and Finland.
Eurasian Woodcock foraging on the lake
Woodcocks are similar in appearance to snipes but the two species are found in different habitats, with woodcocks preferring woodlands and snipes mainly living and foraging in grasslands and moorlands.
It’s not impossible to distinguish between the two visually, as snipes are slightly smaller and slimmer birds, and have striped faces, while woodcocks are stockier and have a striped crown.
An estimated 160,000 woodcock are shot by recreational hunters as game birds each year. Shooting is only permitted during the open season, which runs from October 1 (September 1 in Scotland) until January 31.
Classed as a game bird, woodcock is indeed edible. Due to the reclusive nature of the species, they are a notoriously hard species to track down, so woodcock is considered a relatively rare find in a butcher’s shop.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
The Ruddy Turnstone is an attractive shorebird, frequently seen flipping stones in search of small creatures sheltering beneath. These long-distance migrants visit temperate and tropical coastlines across the globe but return to the Arctic each year to nest.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
A rare breeding wading bird in the UK, ruffs are among the most intriguing bird species on Earth, due to the diversity not just between males and females, but also between the three distinctly different types of males that occur.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
Unlike many wading bird species, in red-necked phalaropes the traditional roles are reversed. The female is larger, brighter and leaves parental care of the young to the drabber, smaller male. Also, unusual for waders, red-necked phalaropes spend up to 9 months at sea once breeding in the upper northern hemisphere is complete.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Red knots, known simply as ‘knots’ in the UK are medium-sized shorebirds that undertake impressive annual migrations of up to 30,000 km (18,000 mi) each year between Arctic breeding grounds and southern coastal wintering habitats.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.
A medium wading bird, named after its brightly coloured legs, the greenshank breeds in northern Scotland, as well as further to the east across Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, an influx of greenshanks descends upon wetlands and marshes and along the coast of south-west England, Wales, Ireland and north-east Scotland. Tens of thousands of birds migrate significantly further afield, reaching the coasts of Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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