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 Common Snipe - Fact File
Gallinago gallinago
Widespread but declining as breeding bird. More common in winter.
Marshes, flooded meadows, bogs and moors.

Cryptic plumage and very long bill. Snipe is larger, and has longer bill than similarly plumaged Jack Snipe. When flushed, rises away in zig-zag flight.

26cm (10")

Common Snipe

When I began birding three waders: lapwing, redshank and snipe were all common breeders in many areas of Norfolk. Today their numbers are much reduced and their distribution greatly restricted.

The reason for this decline is that wet meadows have been drained and converted to arable land or to improved grassland. Conservation bodies increased their holdings of wet meadowland but reserves can only hope to save a small amount of what existed formerly.

Snipe, for example, face serious problems when their habitat deteriorates. The birds feed by feeling prey deep in the soil. If the marshes and meadows are well drained — or were not waterlogged at the end of the winter — then the ground may become dry and hard and breeding will cease.

The largest concentration of breeding snipe is to be found on the Ouse Washes. The population varies, but has been as high as 370 pairs during recent summers. Other remaining strongholds include Strumpshaw RSPB Reserve and Holkham National Nature Reserve.

In spring, snipe perform spectacular displays high in the sky. Each male, following a circular route, makes a series of power dives during which the outermost tail-feathers are held out almost at right-angles to the bird's body. Feather vibration in the slipstream produces the remarkable throbbing known as 'drumming'.

Drumming takes place throughout the breeding season — I have enjoyed listening to moonlit nights.

Once a female snipe is attracted the male pursues her and dives with wings held above the body in a V-shape often rolling and turning upside-down. The male takes no part in incubation, continuing drumming displays over the nesting territory. He feeds mostly at night, spending much of the day resting in cover.

Many breeding attempts fail. Crows or stoats may take the eggs. Trampling by livestock and late flooding are also hazards. Fortunately snipe are persistent breeders and females made produce three or four clutches in the season before rearing young. In these circumstances the latest nests may be started in July.

This was the situation at Welney last year. At this Wildfowl and Wetlands Reserve a number of snipe nests were protected with heavy-duty wire cages to prevent trampling by cattle. But without doubt a certain amount of grazing is important for breeding waders. Otherwise vegetation would rapidly become far too dense

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.