Interesting to have a snipe chick brought to me last night by the dog. We flushed an adult snipe as we walked through the long grass, and it raised suspicions by fluttering only forty yards before dropping back in again. My first reaction was that it was a jack snipe, as this reluctance to fly long distances when pressed is one of the best ways of spotting a jack, but on reflection, August is way too soon to have these cracking little birds back in Galloway. It never occurred to me that it could be an adult snipe with young, as we’re now approaching the end of August and I thought that the prospect of chicks had surely passed.
As it was, the dog showed extreme interest in the spot where the snipe had flushed, and when I next turned round to see her, she was bringing me an unhappy bundle of down and gangling limbs. The chick was well feathered on its wings and breast, but it totally lacked a tail and still had the attractive chick down markings on its face and neck. It was in the process of growing proper adult feathers on its head, but these were restricted to a thin stripe of quills down the middle of its head like a mohican. It really was a remarkable and stunning little bird, and I gave it a quick MOT to be sure the dog hadn’t hurt it.
Its legs were absurdly spindly, and I was relieved that it was unharmed by the experience. It managed to fill my hand with crap, and then I placed it gently on the ground. With a little shake, it found its bearings and began to walk off briskly into the rushes as if the experience had been little more than a slight inconvenience. It walked with a very upright, slightly unsteady posture, with its head tipped forward and its stubby wings folded as neatly as the situation would allow over its back. It passed behind a patch of scabious and bog star and I never saw it again – extraordinary camouflage swallowed it up.
My book on waders (Nethersole-Thompson) suggests that this little bird was probably only around six weeks old (although I’m happy to be disabused). Wader chicks develop very quickly on a high protein diet, and looking at its wings, this chick could easily have flown away (or at least fluttered away) from us. As it was, it banked on remaining hidden and was simply unlucky to be found. But if this chick was six weeks old, it must have hatched in early/mid July. Snipe eggs take 19 days to hatch, so the clutch must have been laid in late June. This dramatically increases my understanding of snipe breeding seasons, having noted the discovery of eggs in March and chicks in early April on this blog over the last few years. It now implies that eggs can be laid any time from mid March to mid June, and the success of this chick (although still far from guaranteed) suggests that this flexibility is a useful asset.
Snipe are markedly more determined (and successful) in their breeding on the Chayne than any other wader – a fact upheld by the constant (and possibly rising) numbers of breeding pairs, which is in stark contrast to the vanished lapwing and oystercatchers and the steady decline of the curlew. Snipe nests are harder to find than many of their peers and their breeding efforts are tenacious and flexible – in a crumbling countryside, they are one of the few stalwarts. This discovery was particularly rewarding because I’ve now seen young snipe at every stage of development, from still-wet chick to idle adolescent. This middle-stage of downy teenager was the only one I had never found.