An Agony, in Eight Fits. 

For it has been agony, John and I have searched for years and years and risked wellingtons and reputation for the fabled Jack Snipe, Lymnocryptes minimus. It has been our golden fleece, our holy grail, and despite tip-offs and extensive hunts at the right times of year, we have failed to find one, while others around us casually mentioned seeing them as though they are common as pigeons. But finally, and with much rejoicing, our hunt has ended.   

Fit the First

“Just the place for a Snipe!” the Birder cried,
   As he parked his car with care;
Supporting his ‘scope on one shoulder with pride
   He pulled a hat over his hair.

Firstly, an introduction to the Jack Snipe. This diminutive wader breeds on extensive and mosquito-infested bogs in Northern Europe and across Russia, but migrates to wintering grounds as far south as Africa during the winter months. In Britain, they are found in autumn and winter in ditches and marshy ground or pools across the country, but are thinly spread and very secretive so are hugely under-recorded. It is only a cousin to the Common Snipe, having enough differences in plumage, structure, behaviour, calls and internal anatomy to be placed in its own genus.

Fit the Second

“For, although common Snipes do no manner of harm,
   Yet I feel it my duty to say,
Some are Jacks-” The Birder broke off in alarm,
   For the other had fainted away.

As I already remarked, John and I have a long history of failed searches for this bird, which resulted in it becoming one of our most wanted British species and one which was long overdue. You can read about two of our past hunts in Sussex in previous blog posts, here and here. We assumed that we would be most likely to spot one during harsh winter weather at one of the larger wetland sites in Sussex, hoping that snow or ice would force a Jack Snipe into the open. We certainly didn’t consider trying anywhere small, inland, close to home and on a frost-free November day – which it subsequently transpired was rather stupid of us.

Fit the Third

“But if ever I meet with a Jack Snipe, that day,
   In a moment (of this I am sure),
I shall suddenly and joyfully dance away –
   Which may be hard to endure!”

So we were both surprised and excited to learn that a Jack Snipe, or possibly two, had been recently seen at a small local nature reserve just outside of Redhill in Surrey. There was scant information and no photos accompanying this report, but seeing as it was barely a 20-minute drive up the road we decided to give it a shot one Sunday afternoon. Once again, we failed to see our quarry. There were at least 12 Common Snipe loafing about on the muddy margins of a small railway-side pond, but no Jacks. I tried the same spot on my own a week later, but the snipe eluded me for what felt like the hundredth time. I was at my wits end and seriously doubting the validity of the reports.

Fit the Fourth

“For the Snipe’s a peculiar creature, that won’t
   Be spotted in a commonplace way.
Search marshes you know, and try all that you don’t:
   Not a chance must be wasted to-day!”

We considered the possibility that the snipe was only being seen early in the morning, or only appeared in the open briefly before vanishing back into the long rushes, or that we should wait until the frosts of winter to drag it out into view, or that there wan’t one there at all. Then one day last week, I saw a photo online of what was indisputably a Jack Snipe, and it had been taken by a birder at the very site in Redhill we had searched – proof at last! We planned yet another hunt for that weekend, with hopes raised a tiny amount.

Fit the Fifth

They sought it with flushing, they sought it with care;
   They pursued it with bino’s and hope;
They threatened its life with a menacing-stare;
   They charmed it with smiles and a ‘scope.

There was a biting north wind and periods of sharp, glaring sunlight were interspersed with grey shadow as scudding masses of low cloud passed in front of the sun. We spent the first half-hour trying to find our way onto the reserve as we had tried a different entrance which turned out to not be where we thought – resulting in a slightly stressful walk around an industrial estate. Eventually we were approaching the famed pool, my heartbeat a little higher than normal and my brain already preparing itself for disappointment.

Fit the Sixth

But the Birder, weary of proving in vain
   That the identification was wrong,
Fell asleep, and in dreams saw the creature quite plain
   That his fancy had dwelt on so long.

I scanned the black mud of the shoreline, passing over three Common Snipe probing in the dirt, before my eyes came to rest on a fourth bird. All stress and fear of disappointment melted away instantly as I realised I was, at long last, looking at my first ever Jack Snipe. I nudged John and rather underwhelmingly said “John, there’s the Jack Snipe” pointing with outstretched finger towards that mythical creature.

Fit the Seventh

Then the Birder, inspired with a courage so new
   It was a matter for general hype,
Rushed madly ahead and was lost to all view
   In his zeal to discover the Snipe.

We spent a good amount of time enjoying quite remarkably good views of the Jack Snipe feeding right in the open along the ponds shore, often right alongside Common Snipe – allowing for useful comparison of the two species. At first glance they are quite similar, but good views reveal that they are really quite different in many ways. The Jack has a much shorter, stouter bill, it is overall smaller in size, the head pattern is different as the Jack lacks a crown stripe and has a strong, split eyestripe. The creamy bands along the back of the bird are bolder and broader than on Common Snipe. The Jack also has a distinct posture, seeming to be permanently crouched with its short neck tucked in to its body as though cold. Very helpfully, the Jack has a diagnostic behaviour of bobbing up and down as if on a spring when it is moving or feeding – no idea why but it is rather comical!

Fit the Eighth

“It’s a Snipe!” was the sound that first came to their ears,
   And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
   Then the joyous words, “It’s a Jack- in view!”

We were overjoyed, not just that we had found a Jack Snipe, but that we had such fantastic, prolonged views of it in the open and in good light, we even managed to get some (poor) photos and I managed a video of its bobbing action (you can watch that here). We have finally lifted the curse, broken our duck, and all the years of fruitless searching were repayed – if anything it made the victory even sweeter. I personally was still in shock for a few hours after we found it, and it is still sinking in, but I’m glad we can now move on as birders, having removed a major blocker, and hopefully many more Jack Snipe will feature in our future birding careers! Or not.

Poetry written with assistance from Lewis Carroll.

Common on the left and Jack on the right – proof!