The classic Cornish wooded valley, so steeply sloped that my footsteps slide horizontally into a porridge of treacle-like soil and it’s soaking oak-leaf carpet, the seemingly solid looking ground behaving more like wet snow. It’s one of those bright late-winter days with the first hints of warmth, and in the oaks, hollies and sycamores that root themselves precariously on the near 60-degree hillside, the long-tailed tits, robins and goldcrests are singing jubilantly and, I like to think, with an impatience to get nesting akin to children pleading for dinner to be ready.
These well-drained slopes are the ideal resting spot for a far more mysterious bird. Secretive, nocturnal and enigmatic in its ecology – as a mammal specialist, this instantly puts it near the top of my favourite bird list. There are clusters of bramble here, the kind that jeer threateningly at any humans who might foolishly bluster through them and receive snags in their clothes and cuts on their skin in response. But to the woodcock, this makes them an ideal fort in the day, a place of solitude before it flies to the swampy valley bottom of the wood or the mucky fields beyond at night to feed. Sure enough as I continue my way past these bramble islands, I send up one bird from its haven, and another some way on.
I’ve seen a fair few woodcock now, but each new sighting still fills me with the elated feeling of my first encounter. In company, I jest over the obvious alternative interpretation – just read that last sentence back to yourself with a 15 year olds mind-set for a quick snigger. But in all honesty, I think the woodcock holds just as much mystique as the peregrine falcon (which they also happen to fall victim to frequently when in passage flight over cities).
What appears at first to be a chunk of the forest floor flung into life turns into a bronze missile as it darts away through the trees, with a speed and agility that has to be seen to be believed; its elongated bill piercing a route that zips, bends and scythes among the trunks that you think it’s surely going to crash in an explosion of brown feathers. In reality, it disappears so quickly you wonder if it was ever really there.
I inspect the vicinity of where it shot up from, and find its form. A patch of bare ground, the dark tones of damp soil contrasted by the pale flecks of guano like spilt Mr Whippy, where the bird had lightened its load before taking flight. There’s a single, fluffy down feather here, cream coloured but with the distinctive mottled brown bars crossing the diameter. The patterning to provide the magic that makes the woodcock disappear into the forest floor. Of course I’m keeping it.