By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
The festive carol 'Twelve days of Christmas' states that on the final day, a dozen drummers were drumming. In the avian world, those 'drummers' are most likely to be Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). But how on earth would any bird be able to 'drum' I hear you ask? It seems logical to conclude that such a sound must surely be a vocalisation, something produced by the syrinx - the ingenious vocal organ that enables birds to sing so magnificently. But in fact, it's something altogether different. Surprisingly, it's typically produced as part of the Snipe's breeding display flight, and its feathers are the source of this remarkable trait. It wasn't until the early part of the twentieth century that a Swedish Ornithologist finally revealed the true nature of the Snipe's somewhat eerie 'drumming.' It's two outer tail feathers have distinct anatomical differences, their inner web stiffened and structured like harp strings. These feathers have specialised muscle-fibers, enabling their projection from the rest of the tail. What do you get when you combine a swooping Snipe and the physics of air resistance? You get rippling waves of sound, heard as 'drumming.'
Common Snipe © Hugh Clark FRPS
Truthfully, the hollow trembling sound created as part of the Snipe's superbly aerobatic display is more akin to a bleating sheep - albeit one that's been synthesised and adjusted to a lower pitch. It is, however, incredibly evocative and very sadly, not anywhere near as common as it once was. The majority of the Snipe's breeding population are now found in the uplands of Northern Britain. Whilst never common in the densely populated southeast, suitable habitat has been perpetually diminished through the drainage and ploughing of traditional wet grassland. Nature reserves offer perfect sanctuary for overwintering Snipe, the ideal time to get out there to look. And you'll really need to look, for the Snipe is cryptically camouflaged - a bird with a tendency to crouch, frozen, at the merest hint of danger. Throw in some mud and some brown foliage and you have a species that can, essentially, render itself invisible. Once you get your eye in, you might spot one, then two and before long realise there's a small flock - known rather wonderfully as a 'wisp.'
The reality of Snipe spotting is you're far more likely to flush one from the undergrowth than spot it. In fact, if you don't like surprises, you may not appreciate the Snipe. Get too close and a Snipe will explode from nearby, rapidly zig-zagging into the distance, the air penetrated with a harsh, screeching "scaap." This is a real shame for it rarely gives the time to appreciate the stunning complexity of its mottled plumage. Though it may appear rather bigger, the Snipe is actually only the size of a Blackbird. The source of the optical illusion? Its extraordinary bill, which is proportionally the longest of any British bird species - a sensitive tool that's perfect for probing the mud for worms and insect larvae.
The Common Snipe may not be the only one found in Britain, for it has a rarer continental relative, the Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus). Unlike its cousin, the Jack Snipe doesn't breed in Britain at all but overwinters rather secretively across the UK, favouring rough grazing marsh and reedbeds. It's smaller than its 'common' cousin and arguably even harder to spot. Even its scientific name translates to 'marsh' and 'hidden.' The Jack Snipe has an even stronger propensity to 'sit still' should danger approach and it's likely you'll almost tread on it before it takes to flight. However, it lacks the distinctive zig-zagging and rasping call and will normally land nearby, making for a useful identification trait between the two species. Though the Jack Snipe doesn't 'drum' in the same manner, upon its breeding grounds it produces a sound remarkably like that of a cantering horse. When feeding it also has the bizarre habit of 'bobbing' up and down, as if perched on a spring. Neither of these supremely characterful birds are easy to see, but you'll feel mighty happy if you do.
Jack Snipe © Hugh Clark FRPS