It’s always a significant date when the snipe start sounding off on the Chayne each year. It’s usually towards the end of the last week in February when the birds start their sing-song chacking just on the last spark of daylight. Within a week or ten days, the first cocks are gamely drumming over the remains of the snow and the game is afoot.
Coming off the hill on Friday night (after indulgently squandering the entire afternoon watching a couple of short eared owls), I had a moment to stop the jeep and wind the windows down as I came down over the bog. Out in the roaring wind, there were snatches of chacking and a single throbbing phrase of a drumming bird somewhere overhead. It was a bleak night to be displaying, but the little birds seem to have started early this year. I wondered if I could hear a blackcock bubbling somewhere by the forest, but the snarl of the gale in the rushes could have been a million other things.
The past few days have been extremely busy up on the hill, and my lack of activity online has been partly to do with many, many hours outdoors, stravaiging through the moss. Perhaps even more fundamentally, there has been no internet access in the house since a stunning thunderstorm struck on Tuesday night and lit the entire parish up with purple light. A long telephone call to Mumbai revealed that my internet will be restored this coming week, so I am getting by with brief visits to the Heather Trust office.
A huge amount has happened which is worth recording on this blog, but suffice it for now to include this picture of a snipe chick which I discovered yesterday while lugging a larsen trap over the hill on my back. The round larsens are the best traps you can buy, but they are not the most convenient to carry over long distances. As I laboured up the last 300 yards to the car, I almost stepped on a brood of three chocolate and brick red fuzzies in a wet gutter just as a shower came sweeping in from the Northeast. One of the chicks flopped down into the water (as above), but the other two made off over the moss with all the zest and fervour of Olympians. I quickly took some photographs, rounded them all up again and beat a hasty retreat back over the hill.
Seeing snipe chicks at such a young age was a first for me, and something I’ve always wanted to find on the hill. As the rain set in again, I hoped that the hen bird would quickly settle back down and dry them out. She flew round and round in circles chakking noisily until I was out of sight, and I have fingers crossed that this accidental discovery caused no harm.
Well worth recording the fact that I saw a jack snipe on the Chayne for the first time this afternoon. I’m quite sure that I’ve seen these little birds before, but I suppose that it would be more accurate to say that this is the first one I have ever been 100% certain of. It rose up from some rushes on an extremely wet area of ground, and my first reaction was that it was a very small snipe. There was no skreiking call, and at the end of a brief zig-zag flight, it dropped back into the rushes again about seventy yards away. This in direct opposition to a common snipe, which skreiks, zig-zags and then gains height and travels off for some distance.
From the little I know of them, jack snipe are not uncommon, but their secretive habits and diminutive size makes them far harder to see and spend time with than common snipe. It is not at all clear why they were taken off the quarry list in 1981, and this decision is made bizarre by the fact that they are still legally shot in Ireland without any apparent ill effect. I’m not exactly dancing around with frustration at the fact that they are no longer a legal quarry species, but the decision does seem rather odd.
The last few days have brought a huge influx of snipe and woodcock to Galloway, and the arrival has been so dramatic that it has even been noticeable in daylight hours. Putting out grit trays yesterday afternoon in the thick cloud on the syndicate ground, I was flushing snipe every few yards. Some of them were in groups of four and five, and all simply appeared to be roosting in the short heather where our burns are starting to show encouraging signs of regeneration. In the time it took me to walk six hundred yards and place a grit box every hundred, I must have flushed thirty snipe. Looking closely at where they had come from, I found clumps of shit like messy white pasta on the moss.
Getting home just on the darkening, I took the dog up the hill behind the house and saw perhaps a dozen more snipe on a mushy farm track where all the drains had burst. By the time I turned round for home, the woodcock had begun to flight out of the forestry and they came rushing overhead like teal as the stars came out. As a massive full moon spilled white chalky powder into the Solway, the age-old link between lunar cycles and wader migration rang true again.
Usually, the best indicator of snipe and woodcock arrival is by using the lamping torch across the wet fields at night time, but this year the birds have been so blatant that there is no mistaking them. With cold weather inbound, it will be interesting to see what their next move will be.
After last summer’s soaking wet snipe bonanza, where birds were rising in even the most unlikely spots, this year has been an odd one. There’s no doubt that the birds were present on the Chayne in some quantity from March until May, when the drumming was almost incessant twenty four hours a day, but the fiercely dry June and July seems to have driven the huge majority of birds away. In one field where I am used to seeing the mud finely riddled by long, thin beaks, the exposed soil has been dried into a cracked biscuit. Even with some good falls of rain, this peaty crust still hasn’t totally relented. I would usually see dozens of young snipe during July on the hill, and yet this year there have been almost none.
About a week ago, I started to see adult birds again out in some of the ditches and drains on the open hill, and a friend rang from a moss down by the Solway to tell me that he put up a whisp of twelve birds in a wet field last week. I can only assume that normal breeding behaviour was interrupted by the dry weather, forcing birds away to try a second brood elsewhere. Now that the autumn is starting to show signs of progress, other birds are coming to Galloway as they usually would, only to find that the fields and drains that they will occupy all winter have been lying dry and vacant all summer.
As with woodcock, snipe have extraordinarily mysterious ways. I remember three years ago lying in bed with the window open and listening to dozens of skreiking snipe flying over the house throughout the night. When I woke in the morning and went out into the yard, the procession was still going on, with birds in ones and twos flying high up in a straight line due south. With the 12th August approaching and some of the bogs on the Chayne and elsewhere starting to look very promising, I hope that the new arrivals will be able to provide some sport before too long.
The past few evenings have been spent sitting out on the hill as part of the GWCT and BTO’s woodcock roding survey, which should be on the “to do” list of anyone who shoots. The survey is not difficult, and it provides a great excuse to get out in the gloaming during two of the nicest months of the year, watching for the display flight of one of our most magical and beloved birds.
Having thoroughly enjoyed a winter of woodcock flighting on the Chayne, it felt odd to be back out during the long, mild evenings. The incessant drone of grasshopper warblers added a strange buzz of life to an evening vigil which, in December and January, is characterised by lifelessness and silence. A pregnant roe doe glided silently through the rushes of a young plantation over the march dyke, but the gathering darkness seemed reluctant to reveal anything in the way of woodcock until a quarter past ten, when a fidgeting shape came bundling out of the gloom forty feet up. A shrill, wet whistle caught my attention before the eerie, hollow croaking confirmed the sighting. The woodcock called twice before vanishing into the wind, leaving a secretive snapshot of behaviour that so many people will simply never see.
I have to visit that site twice more before the end of June, and I have fingers crossed that my subsequent visits will be more fruitful. It looks to be a fantastic spot for breeding woodcock, so perhaps the fact that I only saw one tells a gloomy story. A friend near the Solway is doing his woodcock survey on lowland heath with a reputation for nightjars, so I’ll certainly go down and join him for an evening’s survey in June in the hope of hearing that “churring” call.
It will be no surpise to readers of this blog that the great pleasure I take in shooting has its roots entirely in birds. The more I learn and discover about them, the more they come to dominate my life. I have shot dozens of woodcock during the past fifteen years, but the excitement I feel when I see one breaking back over my gun from a bank of January bracken is precisely the same as following the wild, spooky sound of roding in May. The GWCT and BTO survey is a great chance for shooting folk to get to know their birds. Not only does the research contribute to the conservation of woodcock, but the effort spent getting to know your quarry species is repaid as an addictive pleasure in itself.
The memory of a balmy May evening may be far behind, but when the shoot days come round again and a woodcock emerges from the depths of the birch scrub, you can nod to him in acknowledgement of your own personal, private acquiantanceship.
The past few days have been spent on an extended excursion to England; not usually the Scotsman’s holiday destination of choice, but certainly a fantastic change of scenery for anyone with an interest in birds and moorland. In fact, being a southerner, it is much quicker to see a fantastic array of birds in Northern England than it is to head North of the Highland line, and some areas of the Pennines are beyond fantastic when it comes to spending time with grouse and waders.
I’ve been to Teesdale, Weardale, the North York moors and the Peak District – and posts on all will follow. In the meantime, I couldn’t wait to publish this picture which I took on Thursday. Every now and again, a real gem falls right into your lap. Usually a hopeless photographer, all I had to do was wind down the window and press the shutter on the camera for this one. For the first time in many years, I have taken a picture that I am actually quite pleased with.
Little did I realise that a few minutes later, there would be several more to compete with it. More to follow.
Just worth noting that I heard the first drumming snipe of the year this evening on the Chayne – It was a lone bird, drumming intermittently over the course of five minutes before dropping back down to earth again. It is precisely a year to the day since I heard the first bird last year – I think that the last week in February is the standard for the Chayne. I heard a bird chipping last monday, so I had an inkling that there might be a shift in gear amongst the snipe on the hill.
Most of them haven’t come back yet, and I wonder if the birds that overwinter will stay or whether they move off somewhere else. Whatever happens, the drumming will be so constant in a few weeks that it will hardly even be worth mentioning.
Having shot a few snipe in Norfolk, it was interesting to give them a close inspection during the plucking process. I am in two minds as to which is my favourite sound; it’s a toss-up between a bubbling blackcock and a drumming snipe. Having studied snipe at close quarters last spring and enjoyed the incessant sound of drumming which rings around the Chayne from March to June, I have been keen to see the “drumming” feathers at close hand.
It seems to me (and I’m quite prepared to stand corrected) that only the cock birds have the specially developed drumming feathers. At least, it’s certainly true that only some of the birds have them, because out of three that I plucked, only one had stiff, elongated drummers. They are pretty feathers, striped along their length and strongly reinforced with thick quills which sit very close to the leading edge of the feather in flight – presumably an adaptation which prevents the feather from crumpling up as the snipe dives down to drum. For all that woodcock pins are sought after by shooting folk, I’m surprised that nobody ever gives a thought to the snipe’s carefully adapted drummers.
I see on my calendar that I heard the first snipe drumming on the Chayne on the 25th February last year, so even though it will be a little while before that hair raisingly beautiful sound reaches a crescendo, the first throbs will soon be murmuring around the hill. If you haven’t heard drumming snipe before, there is a great sound recording at the British Library which does quite a good job of capturing the sense of a single bird. But just imagine how much I am looking forward to fifteen or twenty birds making that sound at a time. Snipe are the great unsung heroes of the Chayne – I don’t write about them enough because I see them every day of the year. It would be interesting to really delve into their behaviour this coming year and see what I can learn.
As if to confuse the situation even further, having posted about a lack of woodcock yesterday, I now have to report that there are stacks of them. I went out on the darkening this evening with the shotgun on the offchance that there would be something to be seen. What with work and my trip to Croatia, I won’t be around the Chayne much over the next week, so it was as much of a temporary farewell to the farm that I visit every day of my life as it was an effort to get into some sport.
Just before four o’clock, the sun slipped behind the Rhinns of Kells and left the high ground bathed in glorious golden sunlight. Down on the march dyke, the trees and rough grass glowered miserably as I strode into the evening with my gun in its new slip. I was early, so there was time to watch a stunning sunset of cream and crimson light up the hills to the south as far as the Cumbria and the Isle of Man. A not-altogether-wholesome northerly wind was raking down the side of the old sitka spruces like waves of burning acid, and there were small speckles of rain amongst the gales which slapped into my ears like rock salt. As I am finding, woodcock often choose the gap between young and old trees to flight along, and it didn’t take much to press in next to the dyke and get some shelter behind the lichen covered stones. Still, my head began to swim as the wind twisted itself into my ears, and a drip grew down from the tip of my nose and ran unpleasantly onto my top lip.
The sheer thrill of this sport is down to the magical genius of the birds themselves. On a still night, they are a force to be reckoned with, but with a blustering northerly wind they came out from the young sitkas as if they had been fired out of a washing machine; giddy, swirling and irresistably fast. The first bird was well behind me before I had even got the shotgun to my shoulder, and I gave him two barrels more out of surprise than in any realistic hope. Having found that the action takes place over a very short period during woodcock flighting, I struggled to get the gun broken and new cartridges (paper cases no less!) installed before the next spiralling silhouette came twisting out against the golden sky. Too slow again, and this time as I reloaded and the glowing brass cartridge caps pounced out of the breech, I watched three other birds fly in close formation amongst the treetops eighty yards to my left. The gun came together again with a metallic “clop” which was immediately lost in the wind just in time for a low bird which flew directly towards me at head height and then spiralled vertically up over the tall spruces to my left. I never stood a chance, and lowered the gun in an amazed salute.
All the while, small formations of woodcock came out of the young trees to my left like the old footage of Goering’s bombers over the channel; monochromatic against the harsh, gravelly sky. I saw almost twenty pass down the dyke from where I stood, and scarcely managed to squeeze off another two shots at birds which seemed to swing from side to side like Michael Caine’s mini in an Italian sewer. I thought that flighting woodcock on a still night was difficult, but having seen every british gamebird flushed and shot over the past twenty years, I have no doubt whatsoever in saying that I have never seen anything that came close to being as hard to hit as those flighting woodcock. A combination of speed, agility and the distinct impression that they were slightly out of control of the situation made the exercise as difficult as trying to throw a stone at a leaf that is blowing in the wind.
I put up more than a dozen woodcock on the walk back to the car, and wondered whether they have all arrived in past twenty four hours, or whether they were here all along and I was looking in the wrong place. As soon as I got back, the only thing in my head was a crystal clear mental image of the three birds I’d seen flying together, and I’ve spent the past hour painting this picture (above) into my gamebook. Yes, I suppose that since I didn’t hit anything it doesn’t really deserve a mention in the game book, but I have a feeling that those three shapes in the wind will stay in my head far longer than any number of pheasants.