Monday 16 September 2013

Showing Well 15th September 2013

c Ron Marshall
Saturday afternoon and I am lazing on the sofa after a hard morning's local birding with Badger. I checked the RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app. on my i-phone. A Great Snipe had been found in a ditch at Kilnsea in East Yorkshire. I shuddered inwardly. I still bear the mental scars from the abortive trip I made with Badger and Paul to Norfolk a year or so ago to try and see the last Great Snipe to be properly twitchable in Britain. 

The result was a fruitless day stuck in a cold and windswept hide, crammed in with eighty other birders and Garry Bagnell, and with a no show result that still gives me cold sweats to this day. This one at Kilnsea had apparently been seen regularly until lunchtime on Saturday when it flew off out of view and was not reported again. With the weather conditions the way they were, bringing increasing wind and rain, I thought it unlikely that it would be gone overnight and there was a good chance it could be twitchable the next day. However I dismissed such notions and retired early to bed to get a very much overdue 'good night's sleep'. This was duly achieved and rising refreshed at eight the next morning I decided to go to Otmoor to pick some sloes in order to make some more sloe gin. 

Nice and relaxing before the forecast rain arrived at lunchtime. 

So it was that at nine that morning I left the house informing my wife of my mission to pick sloes. 

'Do you want your camera?' she enquired.

'No thanks. I will just take the bins and the scope. There is never much at Otmoor and I want to concentrate on picking the sloes. I may have a look at the Pill to see if any Whinchats are still there'. 

Casually I looked at the latest RBA reports for Sunday on my phone and saw that the Great Snipe was still at Kilnsea and 'showing well'. This news itself constituted two minor miracles, as Great Snipes do not usually hang around for long and often the only view obtainable, even if they do remain, is a brief few seconds of it flying out of a ditch and disappearing into the proverbial long grass or other concealing vegetation. I felt a pang of disappointment and regret at the news of it's continued presence but was philosophical as there was no way I could have driven overnight or early in the morning up to Kilnsea. I desperately needed sleep and had got it and now felt the better for it. 

I drove slowly onwards to Otmoor and on getting to Woodstock saw that the time was now 9.30am. Sometimes it occurs to me how much we are restrained by convention, by what is considered normal and a reluctance to indulge in what we consider other people would think is odd behaviour. Or is that just me? 

I suddenly thought there is nothing to stop me going to East Yorkshire. Right now. There really isn't. I stopped the car on a grass verge and stared ahead through the windscreen. Lost in thought. Outwardly calm. Inwardly in turmoil. How long to get to Kilnsea? The only other twitch I did there was to see a female Rufous tailed Rock Thrush earlier this year and it took four hours. That would mean if I turned the Audi north immediately and forgot about the pastoral pleasures of Otmoor and the sloes I would get there at around 1pm or just after. This would give me around seven hours of daylight. The Great Snipe was bound to move but this would give me and the other birders who would also be there, ample opportunity to re-locate it if such a thing occurred. Currently it was reported as still showing well in the garden of Southwell Cottage at the bottom of Beacon Lane. 
I wondered if anyone would want to come with me? I tried Andy, who on answering his phone told me he was at Farmoor not seeing much. He added on hearing my suggestion, 

'I have something on this afternoon. but give me two minutes to think about it'. 

'OK' I replied.  

A few minutes later a text duly arrived to advise he was not coming as he had a commitment that afternoon and could not get out of it but wished me luck. 

I tried Clackers. 

'Hi Keith. Fancy trying to see a Great Snipe?' 

'I would love to but my mother is still very ill in hospital and I cannot really spare the time'. 

'No problem. I quite understand.'  


No reply so I  left  a voicemail.  


Hi Ewan.' I would love to come but am in Devon attending a wedding.

Fair enough. I had run out of options. So it was just me then. There had been no further updates about the snipe since 9.15am. Mentally I went a little bit wa'hey! A little bit wa'hoh! I went into full geezer mode. This is madness. I headed, almost in a trance, for the M40, threading the Audi through the quiet Oxfordshire lanes, not quite believing what I was doing.  
It really was surreal. I had no time to mentally adjust to my sudden decision. All sorts of doubts and anxieties assailed me as I drove for the motorway. 

A voice of reason in my head told me I was being stupid. 

The voice said 'It's miles away. Four hours on a Sunday! The snipe will undoubtedly be flushed and never be seen again. It's a major risk. Think of all that driving'. 

The geezer in me replied 

'But you have never ever seen one have you? Remember Norfolk and how much you wanted to see that one? Think of the great feeling if you pull it off against all the odds and do see it. Go on - jump that fence of reason and common sense and go for it. You are the man!' 

With all these conflicting thoughts passing through my head the drive up the M40 and around Coventry passed in a blur and I only found myself regaining a sense of place and reality somewhere on the M69, heading for the M1 and then north. A Hobby flew as fast across the road as I was going up it. A pull off at some motorway services to get an update on the pager was again surreal as I was just not attuned for all these people and cars. I was still mentally programmed for the gentle surrounds of Otmoor not motorway services mayhem! 

Finally an update on the pager came through. The Great Snipe was still in the garden and showing well. That resolved it. I felt more confident. I was now in full twitching mode. It's Kilnsea or bust! Fully committed I headed up the M1 at high speed.  On and on I sped up the motorway. M1 junction 32 and smoothly onto the M18 and then the M62 to Hull, the latter two wide open, windswept, straight as an arrow motorways with very few cars. I made excellent progress reaching Hull by twelve noon. Grey, windswept and damp. It's seedy charm never ceases to fascinate me but I had no time to indulge in such flights of fancy. I passed through Hull, the huge, turbulent River Humber on my right with white crested, mud brown waves rushing seawards and then on out through a decrepit industrial area and into the open, flat, rural countryside of East Yorkshire. Grey clouds scudding east, being hurled along by a strong gusting southwest wind. Then onto a single carriageway road that went on for ever through tiny villages with strange sounding northern names such as Thurgumbold and even crossing the East West Greenwich Meridian, as a sign by the road informed me. 

After what seemed an age of observing speed limits through the numerous small villages I arrived at the even smaller village of Kilnsea, directly facing the North Sea, right at the tip of the long promontory I had traversed, and there was no doubt about the approximate location of the snipe. A long line of cars, birders cars, stretched back along the grass verge of the narrow approach road into Kilnsea. There is a tiny cross roads in Kilnsea at the end of the approach road. But where is Beacon Road and Southwell Cottage? I need not have worried. I parked the car in a space on the grass verge with a hedge running along beside the verge and walked up to the crossroads. I could see one or two relaxed birders by the cafe on the other side of the crossroads but surely there were more people than this for such a bird? 

Look at all the cars here. I got to the corner and turning left almost collided with a birder who was at one end of a scrum of birders who were standing on the grass verge of what transpired to be Beacon Road apparently looking at their feet with binoculars. Telescopes and tripods abandoned behind them.  
Huh? What's going on? They were in fact looking down into a soggy ditch running between the narrow grass verge and the hedge, at the bottom of which was a Great Snipe, oblivious to all the attention it was attracting and probing for all it's worth in the muddy, leaf soggy bottom of the ditch. 

Showing well? It was virtually flinging itself at us. I just could not believe it.

c Wayne Gillatt

c Ron Marshall
No more than six feet away from me, this vision of loveliness, a lifer, probed away for some minutes between a discarded banana skin and an empty can of Strongbow, had a brief sleep with bill tucked into feathers and then walked up the bank towards us before going back down the bank into the ditch and up the other side to become invisible in the tangled vegetation under the hedge.

Taken with my i-phone.
From the left- Banana skin, Strongbow can and Great Snipe all showing well

I must have been up close and personal with the snipe for around fifteen minutes. Now with the snipe temporarily invisible, I reflected on what I had seen. It struck me as much chunkier than a Common Snipe and a bit larger with a proportionately smaller bill although still a fair length. I pinched myself while cussing about the lack of a camera. I could have got fabulous pictures. It was so close I even attempted some images with my i-phone. 

With my fellow birders we stood about but it did not return. Some fifteen minutes later a lady came up to us and told us it was roosting in true snipe fashion on the other side of the hedge! We went a few metres up the road, through an open gate in the hedge and into a grass field and down the hedgeline to approximately opposite where we had originally been standing on the other side of the hedge.

c Wayne Gillatt
The Great Snipe was in the corner of the field, in the open, bill tucked into feathers, in the green grass. We formed a discrete semi circle around it without causing it any alarm. 

Another I-phone masterpiece.
The Great Snipe is just visible as a brown lump in front of the left hand side
of the pile of dead mown grass!

I set up the scope and studied it's plumage in minute detail. It was so close in the scope I could even see the sky reflected in it's eye. All the diagnostic features were there to see. 

c Wayne Gillatt
The two long creamy white lines running down each side of the mantle. The prominent white tips to all the coverts especially the greater coverts, creating the impression of white lines across the wing. The broad, orange tips to the tail feathers with the large amount of white in the outer ones. It's profusely barred, white underparts. As I said earlier, stockier and larger than it's commoner cousin but with similar shortish grey green legs and it's wing tips hidden by the long black and brown marbled tertial feathers. It hunkered down in the grass. Occasionally the strengthening wind buffeted it so strongly it was almost blown over. It filled the scope's eyepiece. I just could not take my eyes off it. The sheer beauty of the orange buffs, dark browns, black squiggles and intricacies of it's plumage patterns took my breath away. 

It remained in this position, calmly roosting with it's attentive audience  for some twenty minutes. A birder unzipped something, the noise sounding like a muted version of a snipe alarm call. The Great Snipe was instantly on alert, bill whipped out of compressed feathers and crouching for instant take off. It quickly relaxed, fluffed out it's feathers and tucking it's bill back into it's feathers, carried on dozing. Everyone was waiting for it to make a move. A light rain squall arrived and the pattering rain drops stimulated it to commence preening. It used it's long bill to smear oil from it's preen gland, located just above the tail, onto the bill and then to preen it's belly feathers. Moments later it walked up onto a nearby mound of  dead mown grass and there it was, gloriously isolated, in full view, side on. It does not get better than this. It looked around and calmly came walking back towards us, closer and closer, now no more than four feet away. 

c Wayne Gillat
Cameras went berserk with a fusillade of shutter clicks and then it casually turned back into the hedge bottom and went through the tangle and back down into it's favoured ditch. We in turn went back up the hedgeline, through the gate and rejoined it at the original grass verge overlooking the ditch, where it repeated the same performance as when I first encountered it. 

Sensational just sensational. I never really expected this. Just a view of it flying, maybe hunkered down in dense vegetation, barely visible, was what I expected, hoped even, not a grand stand diva performance such as this. It was totally fearless. Two hours now since my first and unforgettable encounter with it, and virtually constantly on view. A text from Andy came through advising that his band practice for that afternoon was cancelled. So he could have come after all. The rain came on harder, driven by the now almost gale force wind and it looked like it would be prolonged. I left the snipe in it's ditch along with it's assembled admirers and returned to the car. Nothing can beat this feeling. A successful twitch and a lifer. 

I called my wife. 'Hi, I am in Hull'. 

'I thought you were going to Otmoor?' 

'Yes but something came up'

My grateful thanks to Wayne Gillatt and Ron Marshall who saved the day and allowed me to use their excellent photos to illustrate this blog


Sadly the confiding nature of this Great Snipe was ultimately it's undoing as on Monday it was killed by a cat which is a great shame.

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