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BTO: Snipe can sit out the bad weather

Snipe - Gallinago gallinago. Picture: BTO/John Harding ANL-150119-172636001
Snipe - Gallinago gallinago. Picture: BTO/John Harding ANL-150119-172636001

Freezing temperatures and laying snow can cause problems for some of our wintering birds, a pattern repeated more widely across Europe.

While some birds respond to the arrival of bad weather by moving elsewhere, others have no option but to sit it out or change the way in which they feed.

Such responses make the later winter months an ideal opportunity to seek out winter visitors pushed further south and west by bad weather elsewhere. The most obvious of these arrivals are the ducks and waders that turn up along our coast or on some of the county’s larger waterbodies.

One of the wader species sometimes encountered, although easily overlooked, is the snipe. This small wading bird is beautifully camouflaged with various shades of cream and brown. The bird’s incredibly long bill is its most striking feature, as the photograph shows. Snipe breed here, occupying lowland wet grassland and upland moorland sites, but their numbers are swelled come winter by the arrival of birds from elsewhere within northern Europe. They can be found feeding on the county’s low-lying marshes and grasslands, often feeding around the edges of small pools or roosting quietly among the emergent vegetation.

Snipe tend to roost during the day and feed at night, with feeding bouts concentrated into the first part of the night and again just before dawn. The long, probing bill gives them access to the larvae of beetles, flies and other insects and birds increase their body weight in the winter months, with some individuals increasing their body weight by as much as 25 per cent. The birds do this by laying down fat reserves, reserves that can help them to sit out periods of bad weather when the ground freezes and the small waterbodies they favour ice over. If conditions are particularly bad then our wintering snipe will move further south and west, perhaps turning initially to the margins of streams and rivers where the ground remains unfrozen. The extra fat reserves that these birds lay down are thought to last them for about a week.

Most of the sites used by snipe for feeding are favoured over the course of the whole winter and many are used from one year to the next. The first arrivals can begin from late summer, though most arrive later, and those arriving here from elsewhere in Europe tend to begin the return journey in late February. For most birdwatchers, and others active within the countryside, the first sighting of a snipe tends to be as it flushes from the ground just ahead of you. These small birds are hunted across much of their range, their rapid escape flight presumably making them an attractive target for sporting guns. The long term decline in snipe numbers is thought to be linked to habitat change and the loss of the wet grassland sites that they favour.