Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Jewel in the Snow

Jack Snipe is an exceptionally elusive species that can sometimes bring a thrill of excitement to frozen winter birding. These diminutive freshwater waders, close cousins to the similar though much more frequently encountered Common Snipe, are most often seen briefly in zig-zagging flight as they explode up from under your feet in damp and marshy ground. But prolonged views of the kind that can be filmed (preferably in high definition) are much harder to achieve. The best chances occur during sustained cold weather, when the birds are driven to feed in the relatively few places where water remains unfrozen.

An email from Barry Trevis, warden of the delightful private nature reserve at Lemsford Springs, (access by permit only) saying that two Jack Snipe had just been seen therefore induced a state of keen anticipation. And prompted an immediate mission to the frozen wastes of Hertfordshire. The roads were dreadful, especially the minor ones near Lemsford. Even mild braking or acceleration induced an unpleasant skid.

Lemsford is well-equipped with several hides overlooking a lagoon area through which a river gently flows. The site is a former watercress bed and is full of shrimps and snails. This attracts a small but over-wintering population of Green Sandpiper, as well as Snipe, Grey Wagtail and Kingfisher.

For the first quarter of an hour, the highlight was an obliging Water Rail that ventured nervously out along the old concrete channels. Every so often it would completely lose its nerve and zoom into cover as if snapped back on a huge elastic band. But no Jack Snipe. It looked as though, if there were present on the reserve, they were hiding away in the long vegetation.

Then all of a sudden two birds showed. One so close to the front of the hide that it was soon hidden by the bank. The other more obligingly to the right feeding steadily in a channel.
But could we be sure that these were Jack Snipe rather than Common Snipe? One strong clue was the birds' extraordinary way of moving as it fed: a bizarre repeated bouncing action as if it was dangling from a spring. Biologists have suggested that this motion acts as a kind of temporal camouflage, blending in with flowing water. But in the relative calm of the slow river trickling though the cress beds, this bouncing caused the Jack Snipe to stick out like a sore thumb.

The bird gave superb views for almost thirty minutes, before bobbing away behind a snow covered bank. A gorgeous creature. A gem to warm the soul in frozen January.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Winter Birding in Michigan

Just back from a expedition to Michigan in the USA. We flew in to Detroit on a North West Airlines flight just ahead of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his $30 billion underpants. Our primary mission was to build a periodic table full of real element samples at the HQ of Dow Chemical. Well someone has to do it.

Northern Michigan in winter is cold and snowy. Good practice for the weather we have recently been experiencing in the UK. After completing the periodic table display, it was off to a local nature preserve for a spot of winter birding. Several hours produced a species count of about three (Blue Jay, American Crow and Canada Goose). Winter squirelling would have been more productive... there were lots of spectacular black ones that pretend to be Christmas decorations in the bare trees and also some bright orange ones that fight a lot. Chilled to the bone I retreated to the warmth to log last summer's butterflies, of which more anon.