The early days of March come as a welcome relief each year. Ravens have croaked overhead for months without reply, but suddenly the hollow noise is echoed from the moss by legions of frogs and toads, many of which perform unspeakable acts as they grovel in the mud. The ditches are soon clogged with wobbling mounds of spawn, and prospecting pairs of mallard spring from unexpected corners with a furious clatter.
Alongside growing numbers of skylarks, snipe have been stacking themselves in the rushes for the past ten days. The annual display of snipe on the Chayne is one of the great natural wonders of the farm, and it is a true sign that spring is on its way. The little birds display above every corner of the place, but they do so with particular density and excitement on the knackered old in-by fields above the farmhouse. It’s almost impossible to gauge their numbers, but a fair guess would suggest that there are between twelve and fifteen pairs on a forty acre block of rushy pasture – I’m not sure how this compares with densities elsewhere, but when they begin to display during the last few moments of daylight, the effect is honestly staggering.
Against an ice-cold backdrop of clear skies, silhouettes and silence, the birds rush and fizz overhead in a constant drone which is almost as spooky as it is exciting. Each bird has a different pitch to his drum so that you can follow him as he loops grand circuits around his territory, but these laps overlay one another so that the effect is confusing and the individuals create one formless moan above the clicking, mud-soaked fields.
My wife and I sat out to hear them on Thursday night and were struck once again (as we are every year) by the simple glory of it all. In time, the sound will become a constant backdrop to all activities on the hill, but the first real overtures are always a significant date for the diary in the first few days of March. I’ve heard it all a thousand times before, but when the birds are on form and you breathe in the cold scent of moss and crushed rushes, my head swims with delight.
Just for fun, I did some sound recording work on snipe and skylarks on the Chayne two years ago – the results have been compiled into a youtube video which you can listen to HERE – I’m always amazed by how few people have heard snipe drumming, so perhaps this might inspire somebody new to get out and hear the real thing for the first time this spring…