Monday, 10 March 2014

The capture and tagging of 'Smithy'

Jerry Barnes & Dr Andrew Hoodless
Jerry Barnes, Chairman of the Bristol and North Somerset branch of the GWCT and a partner in the Landed Estates team at accountancy and investment management firm Smith & Williamson, describes the antics associated with the satellite tagging of ‘Smithy’ – the latest bird to join the exciting Woodcock Watch project – at his shoot near Bristol.

At around 9pm on Monday, 3 March, woodcock expert Dr Andrew Hoodless, my keeper Andrew Waygood, two very knowledgeable Frenchmen and I parked up by the side of a small lane in the pitch darkness. It was a fairly moonless night with a clear sky and hardly a breath of wind.  Apparently not great conditions for sneaking up on such a wary bird as the nocturnal woodcock!

A quick sweep over the hedge into the nearby field identified a pair of faint pink eyes.  Dr Hoodless leapt into action with a lamp and a 15 foot net.  However, as soon as he set foot in the field he spotted another flicker from his lamp and went after what we assumed was another bird. Within five minutes he was back at the truck (we hadn’t moved!) with a shoe bag carefully grasped in his hand.   This turned out to be Smithy - a mature, adult male woodcock in excellent condition. After much back slapping, Smithy was measured and weighed.  Then came the very technical matter of fitting a customised satellite navigation tag. 

The French chaps had front row seats for this as they wanted to take this technology back with them so they can trace woodcock from their breeding grounds in north-eastern Europe back to Brittany – or so they hope.   After much adjusting of the harness and, I believe, a little super glue, Smithy was fitted with a very swish back pack complete with a solar panel for power and a long aerial.

Smithy sporting his new tag

After about 10 minutes and a few good luck messages, Dr Hoodless took him back into the darkness for a quiet few minutes before releasing him.   Dr Hoodless told us we’d been very lucky as usually it would be cold, wet and windy and they’d have to endure many unsuccessful attempts before finding a suitable candidate for the tagging.  And here we were, less than an hour into the night with the job done and I hadn’t even stepped into a field yet!

Filled with enthusiasm and optimism, my keeper Andrew Waygood and I demanded to find some more birds so off we all set to the other end of the moor, leaving Smithy to get on with his breakfast in peace.   Two hours later, after much yomping over very wet ground, mostly in the dark, we had found, ringed and released another three woodcock.  We watched many snipe take off from around us. They looked very eerie in the spotlight, upset a few roosting pheasants and a couple of snoozing mallards quacked to show their annoyance. Mr Fox was spotted in the distance too.

It was getting colder and a breeze had picked up, but it was hardly uncomfortable – that is with the exception of my left leg which had disappeared well over my knee into a particularly smelly bit of peaty bog, nicely filling my welly.  An hour or so of that and I took the earliest opportunity to exit the search, at about midnight.  The rest of the party stayed on for another hour or so and ringed one more healthy bird before heading for home – and probably un verre de vin.

It was a thrilling experience and a privilege to see these remarkable and beautiful birds in their natural environment on a dark night, feeding in the wet soil.   Being a Cornishman, I have been aware of these birds all my life, having seen them fly in to feed at dusk and surprised them under a holly bush in the woods during the day.  They are magical but to add to that, their story of a migration all the way to Finland or Siberia and back is truly remarkable.

On my own shoot it was great to see such an abundance of woodcock – around 25 before midnight. They were mostly mature birds that we hope will make it back to the breeding grounds and return again next winter – hopefully to my fields!

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