Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The meadow at night

The recent weather has caused the river to overtop its banks and the depth of water now present on the meadow has greatly changed the dynamics of the site. Areas of exposed mud have been submerged and the geese that roost here are now spread over a much larger expanse of water. The higher ground remains dry, however, and the rabbits feed nervously on the short turf, ever alert to danger and to the stoats that hunt here.

The flooding has made movement around the site less easy and our nocturnal visits in search of snipe and woodcock more difficult. It is not so much the depth of the water, which is readily tackled in wellingtons, but that it has pushed these wintering waders into the tussocky swards where they are difficult to spot. Snipe are jumpy birds at the best of times and the squelchy of our approach, coupled with the agitated sounds coming from the roosting geese, prompts many to flush before we get close enough to pick them out in our torchlight.

These snipe are feeding rather than roosting, the latter a behaviour usually restricted to the daylight hours. There are two peaks in feeding activity. The first of these occurs during the early part of the night, the second just before dawn. With their long and probing bills, snipe are able to feed on a wide range of invertebrates, taking many beetle and fly larvae during the course of their nocturnal foraging. Snipe can increase their body weight by as much as 25% during the winter. This additional weight is added as a layer of fat that insulates the bird and provides a food reserve should the weather worsen and favoured feeding sites freeze over.

If the weather does deteriorate then the snipe will move south or southwest in search of more favourable conditions. Some will remain, however, seeking out the margins of streams and rivers, where the ground has yet to freeze. Vast numbers of snipe winter here, often overlooked, with many arriving from elsewhere within Europe. Wintering numbers mask conservation concerns about a declining breeding population and more research work is needed identify opportunities for improving the conservation status of these smart little birds.

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