Jack Snipe

When thoughts turn to the se­cre­tive Jack Snipe, the phrase ‘find­ing a nee­dle in a haystack’ springs to mind

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Key ref­er­ence Op­por­tunis­tic be­hav­iour as key-de­ter­mi­nant in the win­ter strat­egy of the Jack Snipe Lym­nocryptes min­imus in south­ern Scan­di­navia. MB Ped­er­sen sora.unm.edu

Do­minic Couzens on how to find this se­cre­tive bird

There are some birds that you just stum­ble upon. Jack Snipe is one of them. And while you might think that the first sen­tence is just a turn of phrase, it isn’t. There are cases, ap­par­ently, where peo­ple have been wan­der­ing through the short, damp grass where these birds re­side in win­ter and have, lit­er­ally, tram­pled on them. On other oc­ca­sions, Jack Snipe have sat so tight when un­wit­tingly ap­proached by peo­ple that ob­servers have sim­ply bent down and picked them up. Whether or not these cases have been ex­ag­ger­ated, you can be sure that they re­flect a truth. In mo­ments of dan­ger, Jack Snipe tend to sit tight rather than fly away. A birder’s typ­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence is of slosh­ing through long grass when an ap­pari­tion takes flight at your feet and then flops down, silently, a short dis­tance ahead. The ex­pe­ri­ence with Snipe is so dif­fer­ent that you can use it as an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tool. Small groups of Snipe flush with a flour­ish when you are still some dis­tance away, call­ing loudly – a sound like a kiss of the back of the hand – and zigzag off out of sight. You can imag­ine these birds re-group­ing some while later and dis­cussing the ex­pe­ri­ence in an­i­mated fash­ion, send­ing end­less mes­sages on so­cial me­dia. Mean­while, the Jack Snipe goes back un­der­cover, con­ceal­ing it­self with Sas-like fa­cil­ity, giv­ing noth­ing away. If a Jack Snipe wished to creep up on you, as­sas­sin-like, it could do so eas­ily. Quite why the Jack Snipe short-flushes to a Snipe’s long flush is hard to fathom, and why it sits tight longer is also far from clear. There must be rea­sons but, as with so much about this enig­matic bird, we

sim­ply don’t know. The habit of be­ing se­cre­tive, though, means that, un­less you al­most step on a Jack Snipe, you will prob­a­bly never be aware that it is there. It could be ar­gued per­sua­sively that the Jack Snipe is the most dif­fi­cult bird to de­tect in Bri­tain. Some species of birds are un­doubt­edly rarer, some are equally skulk­ing, some are cryp­ti­cally coloured. But few, if any oth­ers, ex­hibit such a bat­tery of facets com­bin­ing to make them so awk­ward to find. If you were ever able to gather all the in­gre­di­ents for dif­fi­cult de­tec­tion into one bird, then Jack Snipe would be your near­est fit. Con­sider a re­mark­able fact; the Jack Snipe is rel­a­tively nu­mer­ous in Bri­tain. It is a win­ter vis­i­tor and pas­sage mi­grant, ap­pear­ing in late Septem­ber and re­main­ing around un­til March or April (on av­er­age, they re­main in Bri­tain for 202 days.) It is recorded in just about every cor­ner of Bri­tain, ex­cept for the up­lands, and most of Ire­land, too. Just about every county, and most dis­tricts host some favoured lo­ca­tions.

Re­mark­able song

The most re­cent es­ti­mate of win­ter­ing birds in Bri­tain was – wait for it – 100,000 in­di­vid­u­als. That is a great deal more than favourites such as King­fish­ers (6,400 pairs) or even Mute Swans (74,000), although it comes with a high de­gree of un­cer­tainty. The fact is, how­ever, that the Jack Snipe isn’t at all rare. It is just elu­sive. One of the rea­sons why Jack Snipe are so hard to de­tect is that they are al­most silent on their win­ter­ing grounds, which means you sim­ply never go around bird­ing and say to your­self “Oh, that’s a Jack Snipe call­ing.” Oc­ca­sion­ally, one gives a muf­fled ver­sion of that of the Snipe. But for some rea­son, per­haps be­ing less so­cia­ble, it keeps its coun­sel. It does have a re­mark­able song, de­liv­ered from high in the sky, sound­ing like a cross be­tween the clop­ping hooves of an ap­proach­ing horse and some kind of kitchen ap­pli­ance run­ning, but sadly the Jack Snipe doesn’t breed here, and nowhere nearer than Swe­den. Some of our most elu­sive and re­tir­ing bird species – think Quail, Corn Crake and Bit­tern – are easy to hear in sea­son, but the Jack Snipe is never part of a dawn cho­rus, nor evening cho­rus or any cho­rus at all. An­other quirk that makes the Jack Snipe hard to come by is its pat­tern of ac­tiv­ity. It is most ac­tive at dusk, dawn and dur­ing the night, and if the bird had to fill in a form, it would un­doubt­edly tick ‘noc­tur­nal’. One study on a ra­dio-tracked Jack Snipe found that it de­parted from its day-time roost site about half an hour to 40 min­utes af­ter sun­set (ear­lier on dark, cloudy evenings), and moved to a feed­ing area where it fed in­ten­sively all night, with­out any sub­stan­tial breaks at all. There was not a five-minute pe­riod all night when it didn’t feed at least once. Dur­ing the day, how­ever, it only fed dur­ing a mi­nor­ity of five-minute time sam­ples, fewer than 15%. So, if this in­di­vid­ual is typ­i­cal, in win­ter the Jack Snipe is rel­a­tively in­ac­tive by day but in­tensely ac­tive by night. It un­doubt­edly helps that the Jack Snipe feeds on items that are eas­ily ob­tained at any light in­ten­sity. In com­mon with other snipes, it for­ages mostly by touch, sim­ply prob­ing its long bill into soft sub­strate, such as mud, and grab­bing what it feels. This feed­ing tech­nique works in to­tal dark­ness, should the bird need it. Jack Snipe are also re­ported to pick items from the sur­face, per­haps more than Snipes do. In­ter­est­ingly, the Jack Snipe has a shorter

AN EN­TIRELY UNSCIENTIFIC CON­CLU­SION FROM THIS LAST FACT IS THAT SEARCH­ING FOR JACK SNIPE IS LIKE FIND­ING A NEE­DLE IN A HAYSTACK

bill than Snipe, so per­haps it avoids com­pe­ti­tion by prob­ing to a lesser depth than its larger rel­a­tive? Ei­ther way, both species seek sim­i­lar items, in­clud­ing worms, small mol­luscs and both the adults and lar­vae of in­sects. Jack Snipes also take in sub­stan­tial num­bers of seeds, per­haps more than their larger rel­a­tives.

Fussy eaters?

You might think that a sim­ple diet of mud-lov­ing in­ver­te­brates and seeds would be very easy to find. Af­ter all, Bri­tain is fa­mously chilly and damp in win­ter, so what is the is­sue with find­ing mud? Cu­ri­ously, though, the ra­dio-track­ing stud­ies have found that, de­spite a broad habi­tat range that in­cludes, for ex­am­ple, marshes, flooded fields, mead­ows, springs and river­banks, in­di­vid­ual Jack Snipes are ei­ther very fussy in a way we don’t un­der­stand, or they re­main re­mark­ably faith­ful to tiny patches of habi­tat that they, and per­haps even their fore­bears, have used be­fore. The stud­ies sug­gest that, of a given area of habi­tat, only 1% is used for feed­ing. An en­tirely unscientific con­clu­sion from this last fact is that search­ing for Jack Snipe is like find­ing a nee­dle in a haystack. Ac­tu­ally, mod­ify that re­mark. Find­ing this bird is like find­ing a nee­dle in a haystack, only the nee­dle isn’t just small, but cryp­ti­cally cam­ou­flaged. Of course, the one last char­ac­ter­is­tic that makes a Jack Snipe dif­fi­cult to find is that its plumage looks ex­actly like the rank grass where the bird oc­curs. So, even if you have a Jack Snipe in front of you, it is a hard to find as that other fa­mous cryp­tic species, the Bit­tern, only sev­eral or­ders of mag­ni­tude smaller. I per­son­ally have been in a hide no more than five me­tres away from a sta­tion­ary bird, and I took some con­sid­er­able time to find it. The one char­ac­ter­is­tic that does help lo­cate – and iden­tify – a Jack Snipe is its strange habit of rock­ing its body up and down, flex­ing its legs in me­chan­i­cal fash­ion when feed­ing. Snipes do this, too, but less ha­bit­u­ally. There has to be a rea­son for it but, once again, no­body has worked it out. It might be re­lated to the ‘dip­ping’ of other wa­ter birds, such as Com­mon and Green Sand­pipers, but as with so many as­pects of Jack Snipe be­hav­iour, we still don’t un­der­stand it. Per­haps one day the an­swer will be­come clear. Some­body will stum­ble upon it.

Like all waders, Jack Snipe will swim if nec­es­sary

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