Filming woodcock – it’s all about the snow

Filming woodcock – it’s all about the snow

Sometimes being a wildlife cameraman seems to be about nothing but bad luck. ‘You should have been here yesterday’. ‘If you can hang on another day I’m sure the birds will come’. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that I’d have a lot of pounds. Sometimes though, the luck just happens. Filming woodcock – it’s all about the snow, is the story of a simple day in Snowdonia.

Berwyn Mountains, Snowdonia

Before I continue, here’s some information about woodcock on the RSPB website: woodcock information

Yes, it was very cold. The snow came down across Wales, and much of the UK, in the middle of December 2017. Perfect for filming in Snowdonia in all its glory, it was however deep enough to make access quite difficult, even with a Land Rover.

Our main aim was to film hawfinches, and we had a good site near a small church. A small area had been baited beneath a yew tree and hawfinches were definitely in the area. The yew tree was alive with activity. The tree still had plenty of berries on it, I guess because there were at least six mistle thrushes defending it very aggressively. They were constantly chasing each other and the myriad other species that were sneaking in for a berry or two. The cold weather was driving everything to take the risk of mistle thrush assault.

Well, almost needless to say, the hawfinches proved to be quite elusive. I filmed a couple of quite distant shots of them perched atop tall trees. One shot was closer, with a female bird covered in the pulp and juice of a yew berry as she went for the seed inside. Unfortunately that shot was straight into the very low sun and lacked clarity.

Filming woodcock – it’s all about the snow. Then we were advised that there were hawfinches feeding under a hedge nearby. We upped sticks and set off. Lo and behold there was a bird searching amongst the leaf litter. It had another tactic of ‘pinching’ seeds that a coal tit had cached in a pollarded willow. Under those circumstances it’s easy to be blinkered, not to notice what else is going on around you. That’s where it is priceless to have other people around.

The chap whose local patch it was suddenly spotted a woodcock feeding in the leaf litter amongst the snow. It carried on feeding even though I stalked quite close. Amazingly I was able to film full frame shots of this beautifully cryptic bird feeding in broad daylight. To think that this bird might have come in from Finland or Russia. The last time I saw a woodcock in daylight was probably twenty years ago. The conditions made this possible, the bird almost certainly being forced to feed in daylight, with people around, not under cover, because it had to.

Snow has that effect on many kinds of wildlife. The temptation to keep pushing my luck and stalk ever closer was strong. I decided not to: in the end the bird would have flown, and I didn’t want it to waste any more energy or feeding time than it had to. What a privilege though, just being able to watch and film it. Being a wildlife cameraman does have its moments of luck.