The Woodcock

by | 7 Dec, 2023 | Nature, Poetry, Weather, Wildlife | 0 comments

She senses me before I sense her,
of course,
after all, this is a bird who hears worms.

Both of us hunker,
trying to disappear into earth
she, a tessellation of feathers
and I
a tall shape in a woolly hat.

Minutes pass but we stay rooted,
the frosted grass
cool on our toes.

To her, this scene is familiar,
she’s lived it a hundred times or more
crouching to avoid foxes
and huntsmen,
who delight in the oblivion
of her bones.

Ah yes, I see
that I will never out-wait her,
for her patience is unparalleled,
so I make to leave
but in moving break the spell.

Silently, she lifts
a patchwork of browns
heading to the alders downstream
where, without ceremony,
she vanishes
amid purple catkins and cones.




I have seen a number of woodcock these past few winters, but never have I come across one which lingered. Ordinarily, they seem to materialise from the ground – a flash of rutilant feathers which lifts, jinks and swiftly disappears. To have one stay close was a privilege, one I suspect had much to do with the frosty weather. A hard and beautiful frost had turned the landscape white, but it had also hardened the ground, making it difficult for a nocturnal bird like a woodcock to feed successfully overnight. That’s why she was out during the day, trying to find pockets of soft mud where she could probe her flexible bill into the substate.

When she stayed rooted to the spot, I realised my presence was preventing her from foraging. From where I had sat, I don’t think she could see me (and nor I her) but I wondered if she sensed me in other ways. Woodcock have ears in their cheeks – closer to the ground to enable them to hear worms and other invertebrates in the soil. Perhaps this meant she could hear me? I thought I was being quiet, but that’s from my human perspective. It wouldn’t surprise me if a bird so in tune with the earth beneath us could hear the reverberation of heartbeats and the creak of bones.

So I tried to sneak away, but in that moment she lost her nerve. She lifted from the silver grass, appearing so much larger now that she was airborne, and flew along the river, disappearing on the other side. Initially, I felt guilty that I’d flushed her, but later I was glad. For later that same field rumbled with the sound of guns as a party of shooters aimed their shotguns skywards and shot down the local ducks. Had a woodcock been caught up in the commotion, I’m not sure how it would have fared.

But my woodcock was downriver, tucked beneath the alders on the far side where, I hope, she remained unseen, until the guns had gone, and nightfall gave her solace once more.


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