, 21 December 2012

Author Michael Blencowe

According to the Mayans the world was meant to end at today. And so it was that I found myself facing the apocalypse whilst up to my ankles in water with a laminated nightjar on the end of a fishing rod. Let me explain….

Waxwing / Andrew King
Waxwing / Andrew King

Each year I lead a walk looking for jack snipe along the Ouse valley. Jack snipe must win the title of Britain’s most elusive bird. Smaller than the common snipe they are cryptically camouflaged, silent and wont fly until you almost stand on them. In winter jack snipe follow blaze a trail ahead of Santa on a flightpath from Lapland and arrive in the relatively mild climate of England to feed.

Each year I walk along the Ouse’s wet meadows surveying for jack snipe and the larger common snipe; an event called ‘Jack’s Back’. Today my walk co-incided perfectly with the imminent destruction of the planet (if you believe the Mayan prophecies) and it was nice to see that so many Sussex Wildlife Trust supporters had chosen to spend their last hours on earth with me. Now I come to think of it, I didn’t notice many Mayans in the crowd though.

We started the walk at the Linklater Pavilion where I gave a brief illustrated talk (entitled “You don’t know Jack”) about our elusive target ensuring everyone was armed with specialist snipe skills. We then headed out into the winter sunshine.

We took a slight detour at the start of the walk to have a look at the waxwings over at the skate park. Waxwings arrived in Lewes a few weeks ago but have been a bit tricky to locate however in the past week the birds have taken up residence just beyond the half-pipe.

Not long ago waxwings themselves were seen as a portent of doom. The bird’s irregular appearances were linked to pestilence and destruction – we now know these influxes are actually linked to the lack of berries in their north european homelands. Still, while I watched them I kept scanning the sky for asteroids, just to be on the safe side.

We headed off along The Ouse on our snipe quest. I’ve never seen the river this high for a few years. Yesterday’s biblical downpour had really flooded the fields north of Lewes. Whilst I’m sure Noah wouldn’t have been too worried about a ‘possible flood warning for Uckfield’ flooding has caused a lot of chaos and destruction to residents of the Ouse valley in the past.

So we walked through the flooded fields hoping to find common snipe and jack snipe. An easy way to tell the species apart is in their reaction when disturbed. Common snipe launch themselves from the ground from a few metres away and make a squelching noise not disimilar to a welly being pulled out of the mud. They zig-zag and then fly high. Jack snipe on the other hand wait until the very last moment to fly and then do so silently before plopping down not too far away. To aid my survey I waved a fishing pole which should have had a laminated peregrine attached to it to help flush any jack snipe (this year I couldn’t find my falcon so I had to use a laminated nightjar which I had in the office drawer).

We spent the morning wading through the marshes, ditches and drains but, although we found six common snipe, we could not locate any jack snipe. I used to find jack snipe here regularly in winter but have not recorded them for the past few years. Are the numbers of this ‘invisible’ bird falling or do we need some colder weather to push them this far south? We’ll be back to try again next year. After all, it’s not the end of the world.

flooded fields
flooded fields

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