Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Day 364: a new record

Another dawn, another -4° frozen morning, another attempt at adding another bird species to the Cuddesdon year list. And like yesterday I have about 40 minutes of usable light before work. Having failed with Green Sandpiper yesterday, its back into the woods for Woodcock. Hopefully.  

To find Woodcock I look for bracken. I have flushed Woodcock from an area of the wood with a reasonable bracken understory in previous years, but I tried there on Sunday without luck. I am determined to try again today. The woods are filled with birds: Redwings seep-ing from every treetop, Lesser Redpolls calling as they fly over, a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Woodpigeons everywhere. Small flocks of Golden Plover move south, high above the canopy, Red Kites whistle and Buzzards leave their perches to defrost. Ten minutes of tramping through the bracken and I have covered the area without a glimpse of a Woodcock. Where are they? 

I look down at the gully next to the wood, white with frozen bracken. I have no other choice, so begin picking my way down the icy slope, bracken cracking under every step. Then it happened. A blur of rounded, brown wings and a glimpse, a momentary impression, of a medium sized bird that vanished into the adjoining trees almost as soon as I saw it. Surely that was a Woodcock? I then found myself pondering the indeterminate identification puzzle: what else could it have been? The truth is, it could not have been anything else, but I have long been aware of the dangers of claiming an identification on the grounds of "what else could it have been?". In my mind there is a world of difference, and a weight of evidence, between "what else could it have been?" and "it was a Woodcock". One hangs on hope and conjecture, an opportunity missed. The other is a definitive identification. I know that if I am still in the realm of "what else could it be?", then I have not seen enough to positively know the identification. 

So I continue down the slope. There is another explosion of wings, a bird rises rapidly towards the canopy, this time I get onto with my binoculars: it has a pot belly, a long downward pointing bill and is beautifully cryptically brown: it is a Woodcock. It is the 93rd species of bird I have seen in Cuddesdon this year and it is a personal record. A small amount of silent air-punching follows. A Woodcock. And so was the first bird. 

I emerge from the woodland just as the sun breaks the horizon and, as if in celebration, I am confronted by one of the most glorious sunrises of the year:

Sometimes, when you get it just right, you can see that the sun is a star, exposed by the slow turning of our globe. Crazily counterintuitive, but equally beautiful. The morning light, despite being frozen, was so soft, it was almost possible to make the chemical agricultural deserts of Cuddesdon appear crafted and textual:

Here are some rather better views of Woodcock that I have had: from Sweden (below) and Poland (bottom):

93 species for the year. It is official: 2014 is the best year yet.


  1. Congratulations Tom well done friend,
    presumably "you're off to drown yourself in Champagne"? ;-)

    1. Thanks Badger, halfway through the mission as I type!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Adam, if only it wasn't such a small mountain to climb! Cheers, Tom