Not being much of a one for endlessly sitting in a hide, serendipity has come to play a very large part in my wildlife watching. I’d much rather set out into a nature reserve without set plans of what I want to see than to stake out a particular location. Of course, the main purpose of sitting in a hide for a few hours is that you increase your chances of being at the right place at the right time- and I’m aware that my approach has probably cost me a fair few sightings of the shier, sneakier variety of bird like bittern and water rail. Sometimes, though, you get lucky- and a couple of weeks ago I stepped into Reception Hide at Strumpshaw at a time when the reeds in front of it were being frequented by a superb little wader- a snipe.
For the uninitiated, snipe are fairly small, skulking birds, with a very long bill that they use to dip into the mud and pick out tiny inverts to eat. They’re most famous for their courtship displays, where they use specialised tail feathers to create a long rattle known as ‘drumming’- but my main thoughts during that afternoon spent with one bobbing around outside the hide were on just how incredible its camouflage was. Snipe seem to have taken the rather uninspiring brief of ‘brown bird’ and run with it to create one of the most beautiful plumages in the avian world. From the hundreds of chevrons that run down their neck and into a white belly, to the dark chestnut that runs down their wings and mantle, to the cream stripes that line the edge of individual feathers, they really are quite exquisite. But it’s what that patterning allows them to do in the reeds that is most amazing.
Keeping track of a snipe, even one at point blank range, is extremely difficult. If it didn’t move and I took my eye off it, I was pretty much guaranteed to scan straight past it. Getting a good search image in my head didn’t seem to help either- even after an hour, the bird seemed still able to melt into its background at will. I’ve never spent time viewing a species watching it physically strained my eyes. What a wonder they are.