Monday 14 January 2019

A Slimbridge Miscellany 12th January 2019

I have always had an affection for Jack Snipe. For me their shy and reclusive habits, the wonderfully cryptic plumage they possess and the many happy memories they engender make them a true favourite.

It goes back a fair way to when I was just eighteen and training as a BTO ringer at Hersham Sewage Farm in Surrey. The farm is long gone but in those days it was an old fashioned farm with long filter beds, filled with reeds and sedge that provided an ideal winter habitat for Jack and Common Snipe and the highlight of any ringing session was to trap one or more Jack Snipe and have the pleasure of examining them in the hand and admire their beautiful plumage.They are not just streaked buff and brown, for their upperparts are subtly glossed iridescent green and purple, unlike the Common Snipe.

When I first met my now wife, I recounted to her, whilst having a drink in a pub how I was a bird ringer and described to her how wonderful a Jack Snipe looked in the hand. She expressed a desire to see one and emboldened by a few pints of beer I rather rashly said it would be no problem and we would go to Hersham and I would catch one so she could see it in the hand. Any bird ringer will tell you it is not that easy to catch a Jack Snipe but love's young dream drove me on.

The day arrived and I collected the light of my life from her home, she attired in a fur coat no less and me in a Triumph Sports Car (those were the days!) and off we went to Hersham one Saturday afternoon. I was now having serious doubts about my rash claim, all to impress the girl of my dreams but with the optimism of youth and passion I put up a net across one of the beds and walked up to the net and a Jack Snipe duly obliged and flew into the net!

The rest is history and we have now been married for over thirty years. So I am sure you can appreciate my fondness for Jack Snipes!

The origin of the name is thought to be from the small size of the bird as compared to the larger Common Snipe. For instance the smallest ball used in bowls is called 'a jack' and fishermen will refer to small pike as 'jack pikes.' If we wish to get a bit more academic the scientific binomen is Lymnocryptes minimus.   Lymnocryptes comes from the Ancient Greek word  limne meaning 'marsh' and kruptos meaning 'hidden.' Minimus is from Latin meaning 'smallest.'

Jack Snipe are a long distance migrant and many come to winter in Britain from their breeding areas in northern Europe, Scandinavia and northern Russia. Others migrate to spend their winter on the Atlantic coasts of Europe and the Mediterranean. Some have been found to originate from north of Moscow or in Finnish Lapland and winter as far away as Zambia or northern Cameroon in the heart of Africa, whilst others hatched in eastern Siberia  migrate to southeastern China or southern India. Extreme vagrants have even been found in the New World; four times in the USA and once in Labrador.

A hint of the origins of the Jack Snipe at Hersham Sewage Farm came when I retrapped a bird that had been ringed in Norway.

The world population in 2003 was  estimated to be above one million individuals and it is  considered to be currently unthreatened

The Jack Snipe in winter leads a hidden and solitary existence. Its cryptic plumage perfectly mimics its environment and allows it to hide successfully from most predators and remain invisible even to less than a metre away. So confident are they of their supreme camouflage they will crouch immobile when they are clearly visible in unsuitable terrain or out in the open.

Unlike Common Snipe the Jack Snipe, when flushed, does not rise  at some distance and career off into the sky like a missile with a harsh cry but rises almost in a whisper of wings  from right under your feet, diffident and silent and drops down almost immediately only a short distance away. 

Being mainly nocturnal and secretive they are hard to observe in the open during daytime so an exceptional individual that has been, on occasions, observable during the daylight hours from a hide at Slimbridge WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust), during the last week, had me preparing a trip to renew an acquaintance which would be both a delight and revive many happy memories.

The first day I  could manage to get away was Saturday, not the ideal day to visit such a popular venue as Slimbridge but I had no choice. The prospect of sitting in a hide, something I do not like due to the inevitable noise, distraction and disturbance from the other occupants was not appealing but there was no choice if I wished to see the bird. The prospect of seeing a Jack Snipe and a lot of other good birds as well, overcame any reservations on that score.

Being a member of WWT I can get into the hides before they officially open at 9.30am so I entered the grounds via the member's side gate and made my way to the Martin Smith Hide to join just three other birders looking out onto an area of water, mud, reeds and grass but there was no sign of the Jack Snipe.

My view from the Hide.The Jack Snipe frequented the small patch of triangular
 green just right of centre. The Tack Piece is the grass area beyond the fence line
I was not overly surprised and sat down to await developments. I was sure the Jack Snipe would show itself in time. About twenty minutes had passed when one of the birders in the Hide found it on an area of wet grass, cut reeds and muddy fringes right in front of the Hide, feeding with a couple of Common Snipe at the water's edge but very much obscured by the small blades of cut reed and grass. The Common Snipe were much more obliging although they too can at times be hard to see but today one was being particularly co operative.

Common Snipe
We kept an eye on the Jack Snipe but it never really looked like it was going to come out into the open and eventually it scuttled off at speed, in a crouching run, back into some taller reeds, alarmed by a Carrion Crow flying low over its resting place.

That was all I saw of it for some time before it re emerged at the further side of the scrape, still well hidden and went to sleep next to a female Mallard. By now it was past nine am and the hide began to fill up dramatically and become ever noisier. Everyone wanted to see the Jack Snipe but as it was virtually invisible it took lots of laboured directions from anyone who was currently watching it to get new arrivals in the hide to see it. Fair enough but the noise from all the chatter was incredible. Someone shouted to someone else from one end of the hide to the other as if they were in the street. I sat and tried to phase out the annoyance of noise and disturbance.There was nothing else I could do.

With the Jack Snipe only just visible the hide was full to bursting as everyone was waiting to see if it would move and they could get a better view of it but the Jack Snipe remained  asleep amongst the grass and reeds. Occasionally it would commence that curious bouncing movement they employ when feeding but remained rooted to the spot still bobbing up and down, and then it would stop and resume its slumbers. It looked like this was going to be an attritional wait of some hours.

There is however only so long one can look at parts of a persistently immobile Jack Snipe and remain interested so I diverted my attention to admire the other birdlife, mainly ducks, frequenting the marshy scrape.The light was truly awful for photography but still the splendid colours of the male ducks were irrepressible, even in the dull light.

Eurasian Wigeon, that most sociable of ducks were feeding very close to the hide, on the grass bank that came right up to the hide's wooden front, plucking at the grass in small tight groups.

Eurasian Wigeon
The males are at their very best at this time of year, their heads a deep rich chestnut with a creamy yellow blaze on their forehead and a breast the softest shade of pastel pink.The females are much dowdier, brown and grizzled grey on their heads and bodies but the adult females show a plumbeous pink tone to otherwise brown flanks that the younger females lack.

Female Eurasian Wigeon
Eurasian Wigeon are a plump duck with a pleasingly curvaceous profile, their steep foreheads and rounded head imparting a gentle aura. Beyond the scrape on the large area of grassland and flashes of water called The Tack Piece hundreds more were also feeding, an animated carpet of grey, swarming in close formation across the wet grass.

Male Eurasian Wigeon

Many other birds were also out there, sharing the flat expanse of grass. A huge scattered flock of Lapwings were present and periodically they and the wigeon would rise in alarm and circle in the sky, possibly troubled by the local Peregrine passing over. As the alarm ceased the Lapwings would drift on the wind, slowly sinking lower, wheeling in a loose formation into the wind with reedy cries, to settle back on the ground along with the wigeon.

I looked through my scope, scanning across The Tack Piece and found other species such as Curlew, Ruff, Golden Plover and Dunlin. Beyond were a number of Bewick's Swans congregated by a long narrow ditch of waterlogged grass. They are very much an iconic species at Slimbridge and much work has been done on their ecology and it was good to see numbers of this most appealing of swans

Other Bewick's Swans flighted in to join them, calling with a soft bugling to those on the ground, their all white plumage still retaining a purity in the grey conditions, as they flew with some grace to join the small gathering of fellow swans out on The Tack Piece.

Bewick's Swans
I sat, quite happily in the hide for a couple of hours watching the ever changing panorama before me, revelling in such an abundance and variety of bird life. 

Bewick's Swans
The wigeon were not the only ducks on the scrape as up to a dozen male Northern Pintails had arrived in the intervening time to swim around on the shallow water and display amongst themselves and to the few females present. They are so very different in profile to the plump wigeon, their long necks and  pointed central tail feathers, accentuate their attentuated, elegant appearance. Like raffish dandys at an exclusive club  the males disport their finery amongst themselves finding it impossible not to pose and preen and constantly show off to the females, even when the latter are already obviously paired to another.

Northern Pintails
Diminutive  drake Eurasian Teal  swam across the water looking like tiny animated toys amongst the larger Mallard and Northern Pintail. A compact bundle of beauty they busied themselves like fussy waiters, swimming rapidly hither and thither for no obvious purpose or waddled on short black legs onto the land to preen and once satisfied, settled and reversed their green and chestnut heads  to tuck their bills into the feathers of their back and sleep.

Male Eurasian Teal
A couple of drake Northern Shovelers were syphoning the water through their outlandish bills. Such a  huge spatulate bill would make them seem grotesque were it not for the glory of their breeding plumage, a pallet splash of colours, green, white and chestnut  complemented with gleaming yellow eyes and bright orange legs and feet.

Northern Shoveler
A Lapwing came very close to the Hide, close enough for me to see the patch of purple and midnight blue iridescence at the fold of its wing and the delicate buff fringes on the glossy green feathers of its upperparts. Its long wisp of a crest wavered, caught by the wind as it stood looking, with large dark eyes, for any movement of prey in the grass and wet earth it trod. A photographers dream, they move just a few steps and then stand stock still surveying the ground before tilting down to seize a beetle, ant or worm, before moving another few steps onwards whether successful or not.

I found I was getting progressively colder in the hide, having sat for three hours with a cold wind now blowing relentlessly through the viewing slats. Visitors came and went and the constant disturbance began to upset me. Apart from slightly changing its position the Jack Snipe showed no inclination of feeding and consequently coming out of its current concealment. I decided to try another hide, Willow Hide, as the walk would get my circulation moving once more. I was delighted to discover a Water Rail below the feeders in front of the Willow Hide, taking the opportunity of picking up fallen seed from the feeders, just as the Water Rails do at my local Farmoor  Reservoir in neighbouring Oxfordshire. 

Water Rail and Eurasian Teal
It was joined by a few teal who also saw an opportunity to snaffle up the fallen seed. Water Rails are nervy, highly strung and as a result are inveterate skulkers,  but this one seemed to have overcome its innate shyness for the most part. Eventually it sought the cover of some adjacent brushwood and stood quietly before tentatively re-emerging, the essence of caution but the sudden arrival of a  Jackdaw was too much to bear and it was gone in a flash with feathers flattened and tail flicking in anxiety, running deep into cover.

I returned to the Martin Smith Hide to find in my absence that the Jack Snipe had moved, just as I hoped it would,  but perversely not to a more open situation but exactly the opposite. It was now virtually invisible but one brave gent with a telescope was desperately trying to assist members of the public to see whatever miniscule part of the Jack Snipe remained visible. Each time he repeated the words ' If you look in my scope, you should see a reed that is bent over. Look at the top of that and just beyond and you can see its eye!'

This was repeated ad nauseam as a succession of people not unreasonably failed to see the Jack Snipe through his scope. He meant well but it inevitably became  tedious and annoying as he repeated his mantra over and over to each new visitor to the hide.

He was finally reduced to silence as the Jack Snipe moved. It was approaching 2pm. The Jack Snipe, disturbed by a Moorhen, commenced its curious bouncing up and down on flexed legs which is often but not invariably a sign that it intends to start feeding. Incidentally for those who are wondering as to the reason it bobs like a small toy, it is so its monocular vision can act in a binocular fashion, allowing it to judge distance and depth of field.

It was currently at the back of the grassy scrape but slowly commenced working its way forward along the muddy margin of the scrape but was forever and frustratingly obscured by blades of grass or spikes of sedge and cut reed. There  were just a couple of tiny areas of open mud without any vegetation right opposite my position in the hide  and I  willed the Jack Snipe to progress as far as them. Slowly it 'pogo'd' its way towards the front edge of the scrape. I held my breath but it diverted off into the grass. I gave an involuntary sigh of disappointment but to my relief it came back to the water's edge and at last showed itself, almost perfectly as it gently bounced along, probing its bill into the soft mud as it progressed.

Jack Snipe
I was in a transport of delight as I absorbed the details of its cryptic plumage. Most striking of all were the two long straw coloured lines running down each side of its mantle, which in the afternoon light looked very bright, almost pale orange or a very rich buff. It moved onwards showing no alarm at the close proximity of a Mallard which towered above it but when a Moorhen came close it immediately ran in a panic and was gone from view as it retreated to the back of the scrape.

Drake Mallard and no Jack Snipe

 Drake Mallard and Jack Snipe!
It had been a long wait to see the Jack Snipe properly and ultimately rewarding  but now it was most definitely time to go.

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