This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of Bird Watching…
Words: Dominic Couzens
There are some birds that you just stumble upon. Jack Snipe is one of them. And while you might think that the first sentence is just a turn of phrase, it isn’t. There are cases, apparently, where people have been wandering through the short, damp grass where these birds reside in winter and have, literally, trampled on them. On other occasions, Jack Snipe have sat so tight when unwittingly approached by people that observers have simply bent down and picked them up.
Whether or not these cases have been exaggerated, you can be sure that they reflect a truth. In moments of danger, Jack Snipe tend to sit tight rather than fly away. A birder’s typical experience is of sloshing through long grass when an apparition takes flight at your feet and then flops down, silently, a short distance ahead.
The experience with Snipe is so different that you can use it as an identification tool. Small groups of Snipe flush with a flourish when you are still some distance away, calling loudly – a sound like a kiss of the back of the hand – and zigzag off out of sight. You can imagine these birds re-grouping some while later and discussing the experience in animated fashion, sending endless messages on social media. Meanwhile, the Jack Snipe goes back undercover, concealing itself with SAS-like facility, giving nothing away. If a Jack Snipe wished to creep up on you, assassin-like, it could do so easily.
Quite why the Jack Snipe short-flushes to a Snipe’s long flush is hard to fathom, and why it sits tight longer is also far from clear. There must be reasons but, as with so much about this enigmatic bird, we simply don’t know. The habit of being secretive, though, means that, unless you almost step on a Jack Snipe, you will probably never be aware that it is there.
It could be argued persuasively that the Jack Snipe is the most difficult bird to detect in Britain. Some species of birds are undoubtedly rarer, some are equally skulking, some are cryptically coloured. But few, if any others, exhibit such a battery of facets combining to make them so awkward to find. If you were ever able to gather all the ingredients for difficult detection into one bird, then Jack Snipe would be your nearest fit.
Consider a remarkable fact; the Jack Snipe is relatively numerous in Britain. It is a winter visitor and passage migrant, appearing in late September and remaining around until March or April (on average, they remain in Britain for 202 days.) It is recorded in just about every corner of Britain, except for the uplands, and most of Ireland, too. Just about every county, and most districts host some favoured locations.
Remarkable bird song
The most recent estimate of wintering birds in Britain was – wait for it – 100,000 individuals. That is a great deal more than favourites such as Kingfishers (6,400 pairs) or even Mute Swans (74,000), although it comes with a high degree of uncertainty. The fact is, however, that the Jack Snipe isn’t at all rare. It is just elusive.
One of the reasons why Jack Snipe are so hard to detect is that they are almost silent on their wintering grounds, which means you simply never go around birding and say to yourself “Oh, that’s a Jack Snipe calling.” Occasionally, one gives a muffled version of that of the Snipe.
But for some reason, perhaps being less sociable, it keeps its counsel. It does have a remarkable song, delivered from high in the sky, sounding like a cross between the clopping hooves of an approaching horse and some kind of kitchen appliance running, but sadly the Jack Snipe doesn’t breed here, and nowhere nearer than Sweden. Some of our most elusive and retiring bird species – think Quail, Corn Crake and Bittern – are easy to hear in season, but the Jack Snipe is never part of a dawn chorus, nor evening chorus or any chorus at all.
Another quirk that makes the Jack Snipe hard to come by is its pattern of activity. It is most active at dusk, dawn and during the night, and if the bird had to fill in a form, it would undoubtedly tick ‘nocturnal’. One study on a radio-tracked Jack Snipe found that it departed from its day-time roost site about half an hour to 40 minutes after sunset (earlier on dark, cloudy evenings), and moved to a feeding area where it fed intensively all night, without any substantial breaks at all. There was not a five-minute period all night when it didn’t feed at least once.
During the day, however, it only fed during a minority of five-minute time samples, fewer than 15%. So, if this individual is typical, in winter the Jack Snipe is relatively inactive by day but intensely active by night.
It undoubtedly helps that the Jack Snipe feeds on items that are easily obtained at any light intensity. In common with other snipes, it forages mostly by touch, simply probing its long bill into soft substrate, such as mud, and grabbing what it feels. This feeding technique works in total darkness, should the bird need it. Jack Snipe are also reported to pick items from the surface, perhaps more than Snipes do.
Interestingly, the Jack Snipe has a shorter bill than Snipe, so perhaps it avoids competition by probing to a lesser depth than its larger relative? Either way, both species seek similar items, including worms, small molluscs and both the adults and larvae of insects. Jack Snipes also take in substantial numbers of seeds, perhaps more than their larger relatives.
You might think that a simple diet of mud-loving invertebrates and seeds would be very easy to find. After all, Britain is famously chilly and damp in winter, so what is the issue with finding mud? Curiously, though, the radio-tracking studies have found that, despite a broad habitat range that includes, for example, marshes, flooded fields, meadows, springs and riverbanks, individual Jack Snipes are either very fussy in a way we don’t understand, or they remain remarkably faithful to tiny patches of habitat that they, and perhaps even their forebears, have used before. The studies suggest that, of a given area of habitat, only 1% is used for feeding.
An entirely unscientific conclusion from this last fact is that searching for Jack Snipe is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Actually, modify that remark. Finding this bird is like finding a needle in a haystack, only the needle isn’t just small, but cryptically camouflaged. Of course, the one last characteristic that makes a Jack Snipe difficult to find is that its plumage looks exactly like the rank grass where the bird occurs. So, even if you have a Jack Snipe in front of you, it is a hard to find as that other famous cryptic species, the Bittern, only several orders of magnitude smaller. I personally have been in a hide no more than five metres away from a stationary bird, and I took some considerable time to find it.
The one characteristic that does help locate – and identify – a Jack Snipe is its strange habit of rocking its body up and down, flexing its legs in mechanical fashion when feeding. Snipes do this, too, but less habitually.
There has to be a reason for it but, once again, nobody has worked it out. It might be related to the ‘dipping’ of other water birds, such as Common and Green Sandpipers, but as with so many aspects of Jack Snipe behaviour, we still don’t understand it. Perhaps one day the answer will become clear. Somebody will stumble upon it.
Where to see Jack Snipe
Look for Jack Snipe in winter, particularly in lowland wetland areas. Scan areas such as reedbed edges, shallow lagoons, fenland and flooded meadows.
Jack Snipe fact-file
Scientific name: Lymnocryptes minimus
Length: 17-19cm Wingspan: 38-42cm
UK numbers: 100,000 wintering
Diet: Insects, worms and snails