Debate: woodcock vs. salmon (Part 1)

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Both undertake epic migrations, but which is the true champion?

IN THE WOODCOCK CORNER: Owen Williams, a vociferous voice on the species, director of the Woodcock Network and a celebrated wildlife artist.

Animal migration has fascinated man for centuries. In times when we were more dependent on hunting for our food, the arrival of migrants marked the changing of the seasons and important new hunting opportunities.

Our lack of understanding of the details of migration has led to a good deal of folklore. Our ancestors, on noticing that migrating goldcrests and woodcock arrived here at the same time, believed that goldcrests, being too small to fly great distances, must have hitched a ride on the backs of woodcock, thus giving them the folk name of ?the woodcock pilot'.

We are still in awe that such small birds can migrate great distances, and since the advent of modern aviation we have seen for ourselves quite how far these birds fly. I recall a flight I made to Bergen in autumn, and as I looked down at the large expanse of the North Sea from the comfort of my seat I realised that at the same time woodcock were making a far more perilous journey in the opposite direction in order to escape the coming winter snows. For this reason I hold the woodcock in higher esteem than salmon, whose migration occurs in a far more benign environment.

Woodcock breed in Scotland and we know from ringing and tagging that our resident breeders don't migrate very far from their natal areas. In early November these resident birds are joined by large numbers of migrants from Scandinavia and Russia. This is why it is a good idea not to start woodcock shooting in UK breeding areas until good numbers of migrants have arrived. By doing this we can reduce shooting pressure on our local breeding populations.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Recent developments in tracking technology have enabled us to unravel many of the mysteries of woodcock migration. In 2012, the GWCT embarked upon a long-term research programme using 38 satellite tags funded by shooters. These have been fitted to woodcock across the UK over the past three winters, and have revealed amazingly accurate detail about the journeys our woodcock make.

A woodcock's migration is far more complex than that of the salmon as they have to contend with the changeable weather conditions on their journey, which can cover over 1,000km at a time. There are now three tagged woodcock that have flown over 6,500km to breed in Siberia. The added peril of this journey is the lengthy sea crossing which carries the considerable risk of changing weather, which could result in drowning in the North Sea. Fishermen often talk of seeing rafts of dead woodcock that have been exhausted by strong headwinds or disorientating fog banks - dead woodcock have even been found in the stomachs of cod.

To cope with these risks, woodcock have to understand and adapt to the prevailing weather conditions. We can see from the tracks of some tagged birds that they change course to avoid deteriorating conditions. Data also shows us that they start their migration at times when conditions are most favourable, often taking advantage of a tailwind. Ringing woodcock right through to March in areas where we only have migrants gives us an accurate picture of departure dates each spring.

In March 2013, the woodcock on my study site in Wales left 10 days later than normal due to persistent easterly gales, which would have made that flight exhausting. This same flexible approach is being seen from regular information received from Norwegian hunters and data from our East Coast bird observatories who monitor numbers arriving from the Continent. Should the weather remain mild then it appears many woodcock will stay in western Norway, but as soon as it gets cold we see successive waves arriving - often quite late into the winter.

Our ringing data has shown how juveniles arrive well before the adults, this migration without the guidance of experienced adults suggests that both direction and duration of woodcock migration is hard-wired in the DNA of juveniles.

Autumn reports from Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides tell of large numbers passing through these northern outposts. More research is needed to establish where these woodcock have come from, but it seems most likely they are birds that breed in the north of Norway. This must be the longest and most perilous journey taken by our wintering woodcock. For a woodcock to get this journey wrong would mean certain death, whereas if the lucky old salmon gets it wrong it can just hang there and give it more thought.

Big respect to woodcock!

Read Part 2 HERE.

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