by Sir John Lister-Kaye
few naturalists are solely into heavy data-based journals,
and actually resent lyrical writing. There is validity
for both, a need for scientific books to back-up arguments
for conservation and interest to see how certain species
are faring. But expressive writing conveys the love
of nature that we feel but cannot express. As with
painting and drawing, it conveys what we truly feel
read John’s classic, ‘Song of the Rolling
Earth’, it is apparent that everyone who observes
nature has stories unique to them. Thank goodness
they cannot write like this, we would be awash with
great literature. An inspired history, travel or nature
writer will transport you anywhere. Thinking about
it, you needn’t bother going out ever again.
Curl up by the fire with a comforting book.
is renowned for making a mean porridge and for starting
and running Aigas, the first Field Centre in Scotland.
I have spent some of the most pleasing holidays both
home and abroad with John. Not only is he a distinguished
wordsmith, but always full of insight, mischievous
John Lister-Kaye is author of 8 books, was friend
and biographer to Gavin Maxwell, is Scotland’s
best known naturalist, was President of the Scottish
Wildlife Trust and the Scottish RSPB, a columnist
for The Times, so have decided – best not to
edit this piece.
My wife, Lucy, was heading home in
her ageing and beloved Volvo estate. Our country back
road is narrow; emulating the river it winds, slalom-like,
through steep birch woods with ferny slopes on either
side. As she rounded a bend she saw a brown bird fly
into the car ahead of her and fall to the verge. Thinking
it was a tawny owl, and knowing my habitual interest
in such things, she stopped. It was a woodcock. She
picked it up. It appeared dead, hot and floppy in
her hand, but bloodless and apparently undamaged,
so she put it in the back of the car and forgot about
Our paths crossed a couple of hours later. ‘Oh!
There’s a dead woodcock in the back of my car.
I picked it up a mile down the road,’ she said.
So I went to look. I love woodcock for their mystery
- they are outstandingly difficult to study in the
wild - and for the inspirational cryptic camouflage
of their cinnamon and black-barred plumage. When I
lifted the tailgate I was dumbstruck.
In the middle of the Jack Russell terriers’
tartan travel rug stood a fine adult woodcock. It
showed no sign of fear or alarm. Instead, something
entirely unexpected occurred. Its feathers slowly
began to rise, not fluffed out but gradually lifting
and swelling across its whole body as though it were
being invisibly inflated. It angled its bill downward
to almost vertical so that the black stripes on the
top of its finely sculpted head stood high and proud.
Its dark eyes neither blinked nor wavered, but fixed
me with a deep, saturnine glare. Its wings began to
lift and loop menacingly downwards reminiscent of
a cowboy about to draw, further increasing its size
into what I now realized to be a posture of threat
– yes, of threat! This small woodland wader,
no larger than my two hands placed together, had recovered
consciousness and was bravely puffing itself up to
threaten me – the arch predator – to insist
that I back off. But I had seen nothing yet.
I was transfixed by this brazen display of avian bravura.
Then my woodcock’s tail began to tremble. The
spiky feathers emerged and erected themselves into
a broad, spreading fan that grew and grew until they
were tilting forward over its arched back: a black,
white and ginger array of quite startling haute couture
that would have graced any catwalk. The tremble changed
gear, into rapid vibrations. Slowly at first, with
increasing vigour and a clearly audible snare-drum
roll, the rigid feathers rattled with menace. The
woodcock rose up on its legs and started to dance.
It strutted and posed and flicked its postured bill
as though shaking a stick. It chasséd and turned,
never once attempting to leave the wide-open car,
it tangoed and swayed to its own wondrous internal
rhythm. Then it uttered a thin sneezing call as though
to spit its defiance finally home. This seemed to
drive it to yet further heights of self-belief. It
rose higher on its legs and pouted yet more petulantly,
every few seconds snorting this bill-shaking yelp
of exasperation. Its black eyes grew wide and burned
with rancour. It was throwing a fit of wader fury,
a tantrum of astonishingly courageous avian umbrage.
In defence of its own life this exquisite creature
was performing an ancient fan dance choreographed
in the damp woods of its long, mysterious origins.
In total awe I stood and watched for several minutes.
Finally, fearing that it was about to explode in a
cloud of feathers I picked it up in both hands and
carried it gently out onto the lawn. It never faltered.
Even in my hands it sought to buck and wing its bird
bolero. I placed it on the grass and backed away.
The vibrations suddenly stopped. For a full minute
the bird stood still; it looked faintly ridiculous
with wings akimbo and spiky tail up rearing. It seemed
to sense its own absurdity – that its moment
of ire had passed. The bill righted, the fan subsided
and the wings returned to its sides. Appearing momentarily
embarrassed, it took three short steps forward in
a little run as if to check itself out - to be quite
sure it was a woodcock again - then it lifted off
and winged away into the rhododendrons with that familiar
and unmistakable looping flight I love so well.