WOODCOCK (Scolopax rusticola)

Bécasse des Bois


I think this is a fascinating bird, it is basically "wader" (that family of long-legged birds usually found wading in shallow waters) that does not much utilise open water or open marshes, but instead prefers wet forests where it actually spends a lot of its time under the canopy. During the day they hide inside the forest, sitting quietly on the floor letting their cryptic coloration provide protection. They then become active just before dusk when they leave the forest interior and feed in open glades or the surrounding fields or marshes. During the breeding season the transition periods between day and night and back again are really important for their mating displays. The males will take to the air, flying slowly but directly, patrolling the periphery of large areas which may be territories giving a most peculiar call. In flight they seem to have rather droopy quite stiff, bat-like wings and carry the beak pointing down to the ground at about 45 degrees. They have dumpy bodies - which taste good and they are a popular bird for hunters, they have stripes that go across their head (not along it as in most species) and eyes set at the side which apparently give them 360 degree vision. Altogether a strange beast.

In keeping with all this their "song" is most peculiar - a series of grunts, that some people call the "snore" notes with the last one followed immediately by an explosive high-pitched "sneeze" note:

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This activity by male Woodcock is called "roding" and commences just as the last light is in the sky at dusk and as the Robins and Thrushes are singing their last before going to roost. The recordings you hear on this page were made using an unmanned overnight recorder which I occasionally put out for owls. The Woodcock sounds that I have found on my recordings tell me that most roding activity stops after about 1 -1.5 hours but I do have an occasional record of Woodcock still roding long after dark at 1 or 2 am in the morning. There is then another resumption of activity at dawn, roding will start at the very first sign of a paling sky and continue until about an hour after dawn.

[Technical note: since these recordings have been captured by a fixed machine I have had to amplify some of them a lot to demonstrate the point I want to make. This amplification has introduced a slight distortion to some of them, but it is wildlife behaviour not aesthetics that makes me keep them here]

The previous bird you heard was giving consistent call of three "snores" and then the "sneeze" to the rhythm 1-2-3-wher-rup, 1-2-3-wher-rup etc. Cramp et al suggest that individuals may have different rhythms that can be recognised by the human ear. Here is one that goes 1-2-wher-up, 1-2-wher-up:

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And here is one that is even shorter: 1-wher-up, 1-wher-up

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Maybe as time goes on and I acquire more recordings I will understand more about this, it would be an interesting census technique if each individual had his own voice signature. Those recordings were all done in 2010 within 1km of each other.

I have had my overnight recorder out again in 2011 in the same area (with different microphones) and found my old friend 1-2-3 there again (this time with cow bells nearby):

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and here is his sonogram you can see that explosive "sneeze" extending up to 10kHz and beyond:


But then that same night another interesting thing happened when I picked up some chittering noises along with two roding males. These squeaking are the two males flying close and challenging each other, interrupting their usual grunt calls to do so.

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The squeaks are similar to the “sneeze” note only of a lower pitch, and you have to listen carefully but each male seems to be making a different call – I think I can hear 1-2-3-wher-up and 1-2-wher-rup. Interesting...

If you look at the sonogram of the last part of that piece you can see the "sneeze" (the first 6) starting at about 5kHz extending up to 10kHz, whilst the excitement calls are lower from about 3.5 - 5.5 kHz (they commence at 1.035 secs in the video):


So there is this fascinating bird, found all over Switzerland, mostly in the lowlands, but also in the Jura and the foothills of the alps up to about 1600m.

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