The presence of a Jack Snipe on the local nature reserve last week, once again highlighted the value of birdwatching a local patch. The finder, a colleague from work, visits the site on a regular basis throughout the year. Every now and then one of these visits turns up something unexpected or unusual, just reward for the amount of effort put in to watching the same site and its visiting birds on many occasions throughout the year.
Although the Jack Snipe is a smart little wader, it is rather secretive in its habits and rarely strays far from damp, well-vegetated cover. If you are fortunate enough to see one from a bird hide then you may well be treated to its furtive, crake-like feeding behaviour. The bird will tend to pick at food items on the surface, probing less often than its more familiar relative, and sometimes bobbing its body up and down like some peculiar clockwork toy. Your more typical view of a Jack Snipe is to see one launch itself from the piece of vegetation next to which you have just placed your foot. Once in the air, the Jack Snipe tends to stay rather low, flying in a straight line (Common Snipe zig-zags and gains height rapidly) before quickly dropping back down into suitable cover.
While the nature of its escape might suggest the Jack Snipe to be somewhat weak when it comes to flight, it is actually a long distance migrant, with some birds from the Siberian breeding population known to winter in sub-Saharan Africa. Others, from the western end of the breeding range, pass through Britain in the autumn, with some overwintering here. Arrivals here tend to begin in mid-September, increasing through October then dropping before the return movement in April.
The migratory nature of the species, coupled with its somewhat secretive habits and choice of feeding habitats, mean that we have a very poor understanding of this species. Of particular concern is the degree of uncertainty surrounding estimates of its population size. If we do not know how many Jack Snipe occur in Europe (or beyond) then how can we reliably determine if their populations are in difficulty, perhaps declining with the loss of favoured habitats to afforestation or land drainage.
While both Woodcock and Common Snipe are familiar birds to me, often seen on my ramblings around the Brecks, the Jack Snipe is a bird that I have seen only on a handful of occasions. I might just make a few more visits to the reserve over the coming week to see if I too can strike it lucky. Even if I don’t, there is always the chance that I might stumble across something else equally fascinating.