Woodcock by Sir John Lister-Kaye

Literature

A 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 and see.

To 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.

He 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 and fun.

Sir 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.

Woodcock

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 it.

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.

John Lister-Kaye

www.aigas.co.uk/

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