Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Snipe's Tale

Back in May 2011 it was just another ringing session at Cranwich. We had been ringing in the reeds and surrounding land for a couple of years. The project was just starting, who knew where it would take us and where we would be now with it. The huge number of reed warbler nests found and monitored, the vast number of birds ringed from reed warblers and lesser whitethroats to kingfishers and reed buntings. But that was all to come. On this day it was a different bird that caught our eye as we rounded the corner and approached one of the nets. There in the top shelf was a common snipe. Never before had I held a snipe in the hand and never before had one been ringed at Cranwich.

Me and the snipe at Cranwich
With its dark brown, rufous and pale streaks, short legs, stocky body, dark liquid eyes and long straight bill the snipe may not be bright and colourful, but it is nonetheless beautiful. In the UK the snipe is widespread and resident, making short to medium distance movements, breeding particularly on moorland and in grassy upland areas. Lowland areas have seen declines in breeding numbers but see large numbers skulking around the edges of pools in winter. Our snipe was likely to be passing through with none so far recording breeding at the site.

And so we took the usual measurements, and some additional ones of the bill and head, it was good practice for our upcoming first trip to the Gambia, where we would catch more common snipe as well as painted snipe in the trips that followed.

Measuring the bill of the snipe

Fast forward three years (is it really that long!) and a well placed source at the BTO receives a recovery of a snipe, unfortunately shot dead in northern Spain. It is none other than the snipe we ringed all those years ago. It seems that this snipe was not content to remain just in Britain but was making at least one movement within the species wider range. Evidence shows us that while part of the UK breeding population is resident, numbers in winter are bolstered by migrants from the continent and Iceland. In fact throughout the Western Palearctic the species is much more migratory, moving between northerly breeding grounds and more southerly wintering grounds. More than that research indicates there are actually four separate snipe flyways with overlap between.

Snipe flyways from Svazas & Paulauskas 2006
This snipe was shot in the county of Asturias in northern Spain, falling within the North-West Europe flyway (number 2 on the map). Of course this recovery tells us nothing more than this bird was originally ringed in Britain in May 2011 and was then shot in northern Spain in January three years later. It does not tells us where this individual was breeding or where it usually spent its winter. But it does add to the overall all picture that birds are moving between Britain and continental Europe, something we would not have known if it were not for the individual marking of birds. 

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