Every 15 minutes the bells in two nearby church towers vied to give a more accurate account of the lateness of the hour. Other than the noise of these ancient clocks, nothing disturbed the stillness of this wonderfully starlit Norfolk night. Nothing, that is, except the gentle crunching of two hunters as they trod their way slowly through fields of oilseed rape, lifted carrots and pasture with a large net and a lamp.
The art of woodcock ringing is, essentially, scientific poaching ? the tools of the trade are familiar but in this case two weeks ago, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust?s Dr Andrew Hoodless and I had foregone an air rifle or a folding .410 in favour of a tiny satellite tag costing £3,000. Research into the woodcock in the UK has moved on apace in the past few years.
The Shooting Times Woodcock Club has been at the forefront of this, raising many thousands of pounds to help fund the science that will help us understand more about this precious quarry.
The technology now being used will give an accurate picture of woodcock migration routes. Over the past month, Andrew has travelled more than 2,500 miles around the UK to catch woodcock in his net at night, fitting 12 of them with satellite tags ? including one paid for by the Shooting Times Woodcock Club. A further 53 birds have been fitted with cheaper geolocators. Andrew has fitted five satellite tags in Cornwall, two in Wales, two in Scotland and two in Durham. The Norfolk bird we were aiming to trap at Sennowe Park, near Fakenham, was the most easterly he planned to tag, but unfortunately for us the birds hadn?t read the script.
The stillness of the night and the fact Andrew was using a heavier net than usual meant the birds spooked easily. Lining himself up directly behind the beam of his Clulite lamp, he was able to pick out the distinctive bead of an eye and then slowly creep forward, keeping the target in the light. Lowering the net gently over the bird, he got closer and closer until, at the last second the woodcock fluttered away a foot or so from beneath the net. It was a pattern that, exasperatingly, repeated itself again and again.
?This has definitely been an atypical winter,? Andrew told me. ?We?ve seen far fewer birds thanks to the mild conditions ? and this has definitely been an atypical night. Normally when I?m out ringing I?d catch a third to a half of all the birds I see. I?ve only had two or three blank nights this winter.? How typical that the birds should suddenly choose this night to become media shy.
Despite lifting more than 20 woodcock, they were skittish, but as a simple exercise with Andrew is incomparable. Within five minutes of setting out, Andrew had a pair of grey partridges in his beam. They sat tight, allowing us to get within a few feet ? a rare privilege. We quickly let them be and continued to see plenty of other creatures in the beam. Barn owls, little owls, lapwings, skylark and hares all testified to the fact that while the night might have been still, it was certainly not dead.
Eventually, despite an exciting outing, after the frustration of watching bird after bird flutter away from Andrew?s net, I decided to leave him to it in the early hours, thinking he would have more success if unencumbered by a lumbering companion. Dr Hoodless is dogged in his pursuit of his quarry ? at 3am my phone bleeped with a text: Eventually caught two, but it took until 2.20am! Got the last of my tags for Norfolk out, so relieved and looking forward to a break. The game is on.
How the satellite tags work
Unlike cheaper geolocator tags which need to be retrieved either by recapturing the bird or relying on a shot bird?s tag being returned to download its data, the £3,000 satellite tags transmit their position every three days. They use solar energy to power them ? a point which is not lost on Andrew Hoodless, who knows full well that woodcock are most active in the dark. Of the 12 tagged birds, Andrew does not expect all to be a success ? it is possible that not all the birds will survive their migration ? but he is confident that the number he has been able to deploy this year will produce hugely useful data.
The signals transmitted by the tagged woodcock will be picked up by the Argos satellite network, which is dedicated to environmental tracking projects. The birds? positions will then be relayed via a network of receiving stations to the processing centre at Toulouse, in France, and from there to the GWCT?s headquarters at Fordingbridge.
The science gained from live tracking will inform woodcock conservation for years to come. Specifically, it aims to discover:
* Routes taken between British wintering areas and Continental breeding grounds in spring and routes back to wintering areas the following autumn.
* Details of the timing of departure from different breeding grounds and the total time taken to complete the autumn and spring migrations, including any differences between adults and juveniles.
* Details of stopover locations and durations. Fidelity of individual birds to particular migration routes and their winter sites.
The GWCT?s satellite tags go live on 21 March and from then you will be able to follow the migration of Woody, the Shooting Times woodcock, by going to his dedicated page at www.woodcockwatch.com.