Danger low flying woodcock

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Filed in: Aren't Birds Brilliant! |

Danger, low-flying woodcock!

Rare birds from Russia and Scandinavia lured by bright lights of London

A plump and bizarre-looking bird has been turning up in the most unusual places.

In recent weeks, the RSPB has been receiving numerous reports of woodcock - a bulky wading bird with a long bill - showing up in back gardens and even cities. Surprised members of the public have also taken to social media to share pictures of birds appearing in urban areas, including central London.

Many birds appear dazed and confused, having collided with buildings and windows. But as birds which usually live in woodland and rural habitats, what are they doing in our cities?

Most woodcock found in the UK are migrant birds which spend the summer in Finland and Russia. Then, in October and November, when the cold weather bites, they set off for the UK in their thousands to enjoy our relatively milder weather. Because they make their long journeys - often over 1,000 miles - during the night, flying low, woodcock are prone to bumping into unexpected landmarks. Often these are tall buildings next to rivers, suggesting the birds are using rivers as migratory paths. Experts also suggest that woodcock are lured by artificial lights, and can mistake glass windows and shiny office buildings for the open sky.

Ben Andrew, RSPB Wildlife Advisor, says: "At this time of year we get calls and tweets almost every day from people who are worried and confused by what they are seeing. Woodcocks are quite large, distinctive birds and make an almighty noise when they strike windows, which is quite distressing for both the bird and for people that find them."

The wildlife charity suggests fixing an object to the outside of the glass to indicate the obstacle, and break up the sheen of the glass. Try cutting out half moons, stars or hawk shapes from coloured self-adhesive plastic - but any shape should do the trick.

These enigmatic birds are normally shy and hard to see. They have eyes on the sides of their heads, giving them 360° vision to help them spot approaching predators. Woodcock eat mostly earthworms, which they extract using their long bills. However during the cold winter of 1962-3, when the ground became too hard to penetrate, some starving woodcock were found to be coming to urban areas in search of food.

The RSPB is encouraging people to interfere as little as possible if they find a woodcock which has strayed off course and isn't visibly injured. Given time to recover in peace, they will normally fly off and resume their journeys when ready.

Woodcock are just one of many winter visitors currently arriving in the UK from colder climates. Our native starling population is bolstered in autumn by the arrival of birds from Scandinavia, which is why flocks of starlings, known as murmurations, can reach such impressive numbers at this time of year.

Scandinavian goldcrests - tiny, tit-like birds often found in conifer woodland - also leave their homelands for the UK when the colder weather hits. In fact, because goldcrests and woodcocks are often seen arriving together along Britain's east coast, triggered by the same cold conditions abroad, it was once believed that goldcrests hitched a ride on the backs of woodcocks to enable them to cross the North Sea. This led to goldcrests earning the nickname 'the woodcock's pilot'.

1. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

2. In early winter, as many as 800,000woodcocks migrate to the UK fleeing the bitter temperatures of eastern Europe, Finland and Russia. They make their long journeys under cover of darkness when there are fewer predators about. Some woodcock do breed in the UK, but most head back East for the summer. For more about woodcock, see: http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/w/woodcock/index.aspx