Thursday, 16 November 2006

The tuneful Snipe

A crisp and bright November morning proved ideal for watching the flocks of duck and waders on the pools at Cley. Shoveler, wigeon and teal were busy bathing, while godwits and redshank probed for food, and gulls loafed about on the exposed mud. Only occasionally was this tranquil scene disturbed by the noisy arrival of another flock of brent geese or by the passing attentions of a hunting marsh harrier. The good light enabled me to spend some time studying one of the less obvious users of the pools, a snipe. These stunning little waders have dark, richly patterned plumage and are most often encountered by chance. Flushed from beneath your feet in some patch of wet meadow, they explode into the air with a hoarse call. A low zig-zag flight takes them away before the bird rises steeply up into the sky. Such brief views do not provide the time to appreciate the stunning plumage, so a bird feeding in the open at Cley is an opportunity to be savoured. It is worth noting that snipe sometimes perch on fence posts during spring and early summer – an even better opportunity to see them.

The most striking feature has to be the snipe’s bill. Long and straight (proportionally, it is the longest bill of any European bird), it is perfectly suited to a life spent probing the wettest margins of pools and the dampest of wet meadows. Here it feeds on earthworms and other soil-dwelling invertebrates. The loss of such habitats, through long-term drainage and changes in habitat management, has caused breeding populations to decline at an alarming rate. Norfolk’s breeding population has certainly declined, by 86% between 1992 and 2000 according to one set of figures, but the winter population is larger, swelled by the arrival of birds from further north and east.

The snipe, like its relative the woodcock, is known for its breeding display. Descending rapidly from a high flight, the bird produces a bizarre sound. Lasting for only a few seconds, the sound is best described as a fluting bleat. The noise itself is made by the air passing over the outer pair of tail feathers, which are held out away from the rest of the tail. The slightly opened wings help direct air over these tail feathers, which then vibrate to produce the sound. At the beginning of the last century there was much debate among British ornithologists as to how this sound was made. However, in 1912, Philip Manson Bahr, lecturing to the British Ornithologists’ Club, inserted two outer tail feathers into a cork, attached to a length of string. By whirling this around his head he was able to recreate the noise and halt the debate.

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