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Part 35 - The Snipe and the Lapwing

Snipe Gallinago gallinago

Snipe have, I believe, the longest bill in proportion to their body length of any British bird. This may not help much with identification when the bird is on the ground, since the bill under those circumstances is likely to be deeply embedded in mud, probing for invertebrate food. However, the bill does show up well when snipe are in flight, and given that the typical flight is a rapid zigzag and that this is normally accompanied by a repeated and harsh “creech” or “catch” noise, there is little room for doubt about the bill owner’s identity.

The collective name for a group of snipe is a wisp but these days, sadly, snipe are not often seen in numbers – this species being yet another casualty of agricultural “improvement”, in this case the draining of the wetlands on which the bird depends. Its decline in Sussex has been recent and rapid. At the time of the publication of The Birds of Sussex (1996) it was described as “a fairly common breeder” but just ten years later, The Sussex Bird Report found “evidence of breeding almost non-existent”. The story is the same throughout lowland Britain: a sad tale indeed since it means that fewer people than ever will witness the breeding male snipe’s wonderful and unique method of attracting females’ attention: they dive down very steeply in flight, producing a curious sound as the wind rushes through two small feathers which project at right angles from the tail. This is known as “drumming” or “bleating”. Snipe, however, can still be found in Sussex in the winter, especially at places like Chichester Harbour and the RSPB reserve at Pulborough. A walk along the drainage channels of Lewes Brooks at this time of year will almost always produce a few sightings, especially if you have a dog in tow!

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

When a group of lapwing flew over my house in Bramleys in May 1995, I was not especially excited. Huge numbers were then to be found, in winter, on the Ouse Valley between Lewes and Piddinghoe and also at Cuckmere Haven. Lapwing were not uncommonly seen above the centre of Peterborough where I lived for a decade before 1994 and were almost a daily occurrence even in the Heathrow Airport area, of which I was a most reluctant inhabitant for thirteen grim years to 1984. However, as it has turned out, that May day occasion long ago proved to be my first and last Kingston sighting and the lapwing’s decline has mirrored that of the snipe, and for the usual depressing reasons – in this case mainly loss of suitable breeding habitat.

Also known sometimes as the green plover, the lapwing’s wonderfully evocative call – resembling a child’s squeaky toy – gives it perhaps its most frequently used name of peewit. Lapwings could never be mistaken for anything else, with their huge wings, rounded like those of owls. Those wings have a dark green sheen, appearing black at a distance or in poor light, whereas the underside is predominantly white. Flocks, then, can appear to be composed of a flickering – and shimmering in sunlight - combination of black and white, a wonderful sight, especially when large numbers of birds are involved. In suitable conditions, in winter, several thousand birds can be seen flying in loose formations. Locally, flocks are not on this grand scale but even the several hundreds of birds that can still sometimes be found In the Ouse Valley make a great spectacle.

Lapwings also possess a very obvious and large crest and it was this above all that enabled me to identify my very first lapwing, seen from a coach on the A 27 near the campus of the University of Sussex. This was in 1969 and I had travelled down from another university (Warwick) to visit a fellow student. At that time, lapwings would have bred on the Downs in good numbers but this is no longer the case. A few pairs persist in West Sussex but there are none locally as far as I know. Like that of the snipe, the lapwing’s display flight is extraordinary, the birds tumbling out of the sky as though wounded before, sometimes only just above the ground, looping up and regaining height – a mixture of human acrobat and remotely-controlled aircraft performing stunts. It’s a poorer world now that these amazing performances can only rarely be seen in southern counties.

There is, however, always hope and, both lapwings and snipe are once again breeding just a few miles from the centre of London – in the case of the snipe for the first time in more than a hundred years. The favoured place is the Wildfowl Trust’s Wetland Centre at the site of the former Barn Elms reservoirs near Hammersmith Bridge. A visit there is always worthwhile but in the spring is a joy.

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