Country diary: a telltale sign of the elusive woodcock
Allendale, Northumberland: This tail feather, with its delicate shades of peaty brown, silver and muted orange, is one of the few clues of this secretive, nocturnal bird breeding here in the valley
Down in the valley near my house, a single feather lies camouflaged among last year’s oak leaves. It’s the richer tones that catch my eye, the hint of sheen. I put it carefully in my pocket so that the barbs don’t separate and take it home to paint. A woodcock feather the length of my thumb, its glossy central rachis makes a graceful curve like a curlew’s bill. Peaty brown, it has a grey tip fading to silver, and small triangles of muted orange make regular marks along its outer edge.
In painting this feather, I notice so much more: the delicate apricot shade behind its pale tip, the soft down around the calamus, its hollow base. I find it hard to get the depth of colour, so I pile on layers of pen, paint and a 6B pencil. This is a tail feather, part of a barred plumage of earthy browns of tan, honey, russet and umber that enable woodcock, Scolopax rusticola, to hide in plain sight among the leaf litter. Often its black eye is the only thing that gives it away.