Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)



Snipe © Steve Round

Snipe © Steve Round

Breeding Snipe have declined considerably since our First Atlas and the species now has just a tenuous hold on the county. The picture is confused in a standard Atlas map by 59 tetrads with H records, almost all of which were late wintering birds observed in April; these were scattered across Cheshire, with Inner Marsh Farm the farthest into Wirral. There were only nine tetrads with evidence of breeding (apart from ‘H’).

It is difficult to track the decline of the last twenty years because, as with many species, as soon as fieldwork for our First Atlas finished, few observers recorded breeding birds. From 1985 to 2003, the annual county bird reports contain records of confirmed breeding in only six years, with just one pair each year: 1988 ‘one bird flushed away from a nest’ at an un-named location; 1989 ‘confirmed at one site in the eastern hills’; 1990 ‘a pair appears to have bred successfully on Frodsham Marsh’; 2000 ‘bred Risley Moss’, with no further details; 2001 ‘one pair bred Risley Moss’; and in 2003 two adults with a well-grown young bird were at Aldford Brook Meadows (SJ45J) on 30 June. During this Atlas, there were three occupied nests in 2005 at Risley/ Rixton Moss (SJ69Q) and in 2006 broods of chicks were seen in two tetrads (SJ69Q and R) at Risley Moss.

Most other evidence of breeding comes from observers seeing, and hearing, the male birds’ unusual displays, either ‘drumming’, flying over a territory and splaying his outer tail feathers during descent, making a peculiar throbbing noise or, whilst perched on a post or in flight, giving a repeated ‘chipper-chipper-chipper-chipper’ call. Some observers recorded these as ‘S’ – breeding calls heard – and others as ‘D’ – display or courtship – so little emphasis should be placed on the apparent differences between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’ breeding. Drumming and chippering can be given by sole male birds so they indicate no more than ‘possible’ breeding, but a paired male continues with these displays, even on moonlit nights, whilst his mate incubates their eggs. During this Atlas, Snipes were displaying in June in three upland tetrads, and heard drumming in four more.

They are on the Amber List of species of conservation concern, because of their UK population decline. National surveys of waders breeding on wet lowland grasslands in England and Wales, conducted in 1982 and 2002, showed a 62% drop in breeding Snipes, with most of the country’s birds concentrated onto a small number of damp, protected sites, with cattle and sheep grazing (Wilson et al 2005). The main reason for their decline in the lowlands is drainage of farmland. Snipes need damp areas in which they can probe for worms, with some insects, crustaceans and molluscs, using the sensitive and flexible tip of their bill to feel for food, much of which they take at night.

The trend in the upland and moorland strongholds of the species is not fully known, but surveys in the South Pennines Moors SPA, of which the eastern hills of Cheshire is a part, have shown a 16% rise between 1990 and 2004-05 in the breeding population of Snipes (Eaton et al 2007). The decline in the Cheshire hills is puzzling.

Sponsored by Syngenta CTL