A sharp, shrill ‘chee-wick’ alerts us to the return of the woodcock. Its silhouette traverses the coral sky, skimming just above the far western horizon of graphite mountains. Only four minutes separated the first and this second circuit of his spring territory, a crepuscular patrol peculiar to his species, known as ‘roding’. Since it is approaching half past eight it is high time we were getting our son down the hill towards bed, but if the woodcock’s tour of his turf is this quick then we certainly have time to wait for the third pass, and to get ourselves closer under his flightpath in the hope that we can hear not only the stab of the squeak we have so far heard, but also the strange throaty grumble that occurs in the five-second gaps between them. Although we are blessed with roding woodcock over our home every spring, the ambient noise of our populated valley masks this low-pitched grunting. Only once before, years ago in the silence of a Scottish glen, have I managed to hear it. We get ourselves into position, stand stock still, and wait.
Friends have generously given us a key to their caravan on a quiet working farm near Windermere, gifting us three days in the Lake District. Straight off the train we ascend Orrest Head, just as Alfred Wainwright had done off the bus from Blackburn in 1930, to undergo an ‘awakening to beauty’ that would change his life, and the life of his beloved fells. Just as pleasing as its view are its excellently-managed scrubby slopes, saturated in cascades of golden willow warbler song and studded with wood anemones, wood sorrel and celandine, which my son photographs for his school-set Easter wildflower project. Being near Bowness, we spend a little time indulging in the delights of its seafront-like offerings: we eat ice cream, take a boat out on the lake, even play crazy golf. On the middle day we take the bus into Langdale and spend the day scrambling up and over its iconic Pikes.
But the highlight proves to be the modest, unheralded elevation of Rulbuts Hill, 15 minutes’ walk from the caravan through fields scattered with ailing ashes and vigorous lambs. My son and I take a walk up there to get our bearings as soon as we arrive, and its 360-degree panorama – west across Windermere to the crumpled horizons of the Coniston and Langdale fells, north to the tranquil Troutbeck valley and the whalebacks of the High Street range, east through a gauze of afternoon haze to the Yorkshire Dales, south to the sheen of Morecambe Bay – is even more superlative than Orrest Head’s celebrated vista. And now we are up here again, at dusk, waiting under the flightpath of the woodcock. I don’t look up as it crests the birch into our clearing’s airspace, forgoing the best view I will ever get of one in flight. Instead, I fix my eyes on my son’s face, watching it break into an incredulous grin as he hears the gurgling croak – among the strangest sound made by any British bird – for the first time.