BTO: Volunteers are out for the count

Woodcock Photo BTO/George H Higginbotham
Woodcock Photo BTO/George H Higginbotham
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If you go into the woods tonight be ready to be surprised. You may come across volunteers counting woodcocks in the dark, on behalf of the Thetford-based BTO, writes Graham Appleton.

There are strange things happening in Thetford Forest at dusk – and every other part of the UK for that matter.

Birdwatchers are walking into the woods just before sunset and settling down to wait for one of the weirdest birds you’ll ever come across. It’s a wading bird with eyes in the top of its head; it’s only active at night and relies on camouflage to escape detection in the daytime. What’s a wader doing in a forest and why are they of concern?
The woodcock’s closest UK relative is a snipe, which you’ll find in open places, feeding in the edges of ponds or on wet ground. A woodcock has the same long bill but feeds in and around woodland, including parts of Thetford Forest. The species is in decline but we won’t know how serious the problem is until the end of this summer’s survey, undertaken jointly with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. To work out how many woodcocks there might be we have asked our BTO volunteers to visit set locations – many of which are the same as in the last survey in 2003 – arriving 15 minutes before sunset and finishing an hour after sunset.
As the day fades away, male woodcocks take to the air, in spectacular defence of their territories. They fly around above the trees and along woodland rides, delivering a strange two-note grunt and whistle that carries through the air in the warmth of an early- summer evening. By standing on one spot and counting the number of birds passing by, it is possible to predict how many pairs of woodcock are in the area.

Importantly, we have the numbers of roding birds from 10 years ago for direct comparison.
There will be bonuses for some of our lucky observers too. Some will hear the churring song of the nightjar, newly returned from southern Africa, resident tawny and long-eared owls and perhaps, in the wettest and densest of scrubby cover, a nightingale. But it’s not just birds; in later visits, there is a good chance to come across glow worms, as female beetles advertise their presence to potential suitors, and we are keen to collect information on numbers of deer, too. For woodcocks, which nest and feed in the low, ground-cover of the forest floor, browsing deer may be at least partially to blame for losses.
We hope that volunteers will see woodcocks but, given the expected decline, many will probably not. Collecting ‘valuable negative data’ is a really important part of the BTO’s citizen science.

Knowing where birds can no longer be found is an important part of the picture, as we try to understand why species like the woodcock are deserting traditionally-occupied sites.