Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland

This blog first appeared as an article in Shooting Times and Country magazine. It has been amended to provide more web links.

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A wisp of Common Snipe

There’s a big difference between the number of Common Snipe and Jack Snipe we see in the United Kingdom each winter, with an estimated 1,100,000 of the former and 110,000 of the latter, according to the authors of Population Estimates of Bird in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. They remind us that Jack Snipe are hard to find and identify and warn that the total of 110,000 is a contender for ‘least reliable’ of the hundreds that have been compiled for this mammoth stock-take.

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Comparative measurements (summarised from work by Guy-Noel Olivier)

In theory, therefore, for every ten Common Snipe we see we ought to see one Jack Snipe. Telling them apart is mostly a matter of size (see table) and there’s a useful identification video that has been produced by the British Trust for Ornithology. Both species make good use of their striped, cryptic plumage to avoid detection but Jack Snipe take the art to the next level, hiding against or under a tussock until the last possible moment and then exploding from beneath a person’s feet. Given the closeness of approach, perhaps Jack Snipes might be more obvious and their numbers exaggerated?

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Jack Snipe probing in mud

In the winter months, Jack Snipe are not as closely associated with wetlands as are Common Snipe, preferring longer vegetation, such as that to be found in muddy, cow-poached rough grazing marsh, to the open edges of larger bodies of water. For the tiny Jack Snipe, a cow’s hoof-print forms an ideal pool in which to probe. One of the areas that birdwatchers go to see Jack Snipe is Glasgow. Strange though it may seem, several of the wetland areas within the city limits hold small numbers of birds, especially in autumn, when migrating Jack Snipe pass through Britain, on their way from Scandinavia to wintering areas in south-west Europe. Members of the local ringing group have focused a lot of effort on this species, catching individuals by dragging a mist-net through the rough, wet, reedy grassland and ringing birds that have jumped from the ground as the net passed over them. See blog by Gillian Dinsmore.

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Jack Snipe are relatively long-winged

Jack Snipe are well designed for migration, with much bigger wings for the size of the body than the Snipe. Unlike Common Snipe, many of which migrate in flocks, or wisps, Jack Snipe are thought to travel mostly alone and at night. They cover long distances, with some birds from Russia crossing the Sahara and those from eastern areas of Siberia travelling to eastern Africa, India and southern coastal countries of mainland Asia. The birds that winter in the British Isles have much less far to travel than the majority of the population, therefore.

Common Snipe, which are much bigger and more common than Jack Snipe, start to appear in their wintering areas as early as August. The pioneering birds are juveniles; most adults moulting at least some of their flight feathers before flying south and west in September and October. We know this because many French hunters have provided wings to scientists studying the age and sex structure of the population in that country. Moulting is an energetically expensive part of any bird’s life, so autumn feeding conditions are presumably generally good enough for moult to have been at least started, if not finished, before birds leave the breeding areas. Not every bird manages to fit in a full moult before it’s time to move south, however, with one in six adults shot in France found to be in suspended moult, having shed and moulted some primary feathers before migration, with a view to completion in the wintering grounds. A slightly smaller number have a mixed age of secondary flight feathers and about a quarter delay completion of covert moult.

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Common Snipe

Although most of the Common Snipe we see in Britain in the wintertime have come from Scandinavia and mainland Europe, Ireland has a strong additional connection to Iceland. A quarter of foreign-ringed Common Snipe discovered in Ireland or Northern Ireland have been found to be wearing Icelandic rings, compared to 1 out of 255 in England, none in Wales and just 10% in Scotland. This and lots of other fascinating facts about migration come to light because hunters kindly send information about ringed birds to The British Trust for Ornithology, which is ‘mission control’ for ringing in both the UK and Ireland. This information is available on-line via the BTO website.

Across Europe, although there is almost certainly a decline in the number of Common Snipe, probably linked to man’s incessant drive to drain wetlands, there is no suggestion as yet that Common Snipe should be added to the list of species of conservation concern. For British and Irish breeding birds the situation is very different, however. By the time of the first national bird surveys, some 50 years ago, we had been turning wetlands into farmland for as much as 2000 years and, since then, numbers of Common Snipe may well have fallen by a further 90% in the areas in which they are still breeding. There has been a major shrinkage of the species’ range since 1968-72. Losses are shown as downward triangles in the map from the latest Bird Atlas, published by the British Trust for Ornithology. The rate of decline across England, Wales, southern Scotland and much of Ireland in the shorter period since 1988-91 emphasises just how quickly the species is being lost. It can only be a matter of time until Common Snipe is added to the red list of species of conservation concern in the UK, in order to highlight the perilous plight of our breeding population.

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Displaying Common Snipe

A displaying Common Snipe is a magical thing – flying around with real purpose, climbing into the sky and vibrating its tail feathers in a stooping descent. Our grandparents could have heard them drumming on grazing marshes anywhere in the country and just imagine what the fens of eastern England must have been like 500 years ago. These days, most people in southern Britain will have to visit a nature reserve even to have a chance to share that same magic. I am lucky enough to go to Iceland every summer, where I can still easily see a dozen Common Snipe displaying at the same time above areas of wet grassland.  If you want anything like the same sort of experience in the UK, you’ll probably need to travel to the Outer Hebrides.


GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

 

Bar-tailed Godwits: migration & survival

Putting the flags out –  to learn more about one of the most amazing species of migrating wader.

Ruth banner

When we caught 505 Bar-tailed Godwits on the Wash, on the east coast of England, on 29 August 1976 we thought that we would add hugely to our knowledge of the species’ migration but we were disappointed. In the last six years, by adding leg-flags to just 248 birds, the Wash Wader Ringing Group has learnt a lot more.

Forty years ago

On 29 August 1976, in the days of stubble-burning, we had covered four cannon nets with fine, black burnt chaff to hide them almost completely. We knew that the big tide would push birds off the saltings and over the sea wall, there were decoys to pull the birds into the right 1% of a vast, flat field and the weather was good. Everything was ready. I was in a one-man, cabbage-crate hide, in line with my set of two nets. I remember seeing one Redshank look at the decoys and descend, pulling down a vast cloud of over 2000 Bar-tailed Godwits. There were some concerns about birds being too close to one of the nets on my line so we fired three nets, catching 505 bar-tailed godwits and 44 other waders.

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Juvenile with moulting adult

A catch of 505 Bar-tailed Godwits seemed like a game-changer, including 22 that were already wearing rings. 483 new birds were bound to make a huge difference to our understanding of the species’ migration patterns and survival probabilities … surely? Up until that day, the Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) had ringed a total of 1136 Bar-tailed Godwits so we were adding over 40% to the total, using harder rings with a much longer life-expectancy than those added as early as 1959.

This was a moulting flock; an autumn drop in numbers and a previous recovery of a bird in Spain suggested that many birds would spend the winter elsewhere but where? As luck would have it, only one of the birds from August 1976 has ever been found abroad – a bird shot in France in February 1985. The only British recoveries have been a bird found dead in Yorkshire in November 1976 and seven birds found around the Wash between 1979 and 1999. As to subsequent recaptures, 38 birds have been caught again by the WWRG, five of which were retrapped for a third time. With all the best models in the world, these figures are not enough to give a reasonable estimate of survival and there is no way that a change in survival rate could be picked up.

It’s pleasing to report that one bird was still alive on 21 February 2003 – over 28 years after ringing – but even this is not the longevity record for a BTO Bar-tailed Godwit. That’s held by another WWRG bird that was ringed on 22 August 1974 and last recaptured on 4 August 2008 – nearly 34 years later. Perhaps one of the 1976 birds is still alive and waiting to be caught again?

Bar-tailed Godwit migration

Since the 1976 catch, WWRG has been a bit more fortunate in its foreign recoveries of metal-ringed Bar-tailed Godwit, with 2 recoveries in Mauritania, one in Guinea Bissau and another on a ship off Guinea, out of a total of 12 BTO-ringed birds found in Africa. A bird caught in Teesmouth on 13 October 1982 was in Western Sahara five days later, which may give an indication of the timing of post-moult movement. The map alongside shows the full set of BTO recoveries (purple) and foreign-ringed birds found in Britain & Ireland (orange). The dots show the westward post-breeding movement from Russia to the Atlantic coast of Europe and the onward migration of thousands of birds to Africa.

One of the fascinating things about migration is the way that different populations of the same species have developed radically different migration patterns since the last Ice Age, the global maximum extent of which was reached only 20,000 years ago. At the same time that the Bar-tailed Godwits we see in Western Europe are making relatively modest journeys west and south in late summer, some of those of the baueri subspecies are undertaking nine-day, non-stop flights from Alaska to New Zealand. The physiological processes and navigational techniques that birds on the Pacific flyway have mastered would amaze their European cousins. To read more about flyway evolution for Arctic waders, and Knot on particular, see a Review by Theunis Piersema (Journal of Ornithology, 2011).

Conservation Status

Bar-tailed Godwits are classified as near-threatened by BirdLife International and the IUCN. There are four recognised subspecies facing various threats, as shown in the species fact-sheet here. 

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Bar-tailed Godwits wintering on the Wash are of the lapponica subspecies

Two subspecies visit the Wash Special Protection Area (SPA); lapponica from Norway through to western Siberia and taymyrensis from central Siberia. Two subspecies, menzbieri and baueri, use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and are both undergoing extremely rapid declines, in large part due to severe habitat loss in the Yellow Sea. As a result of severe problems for waders using this flyway, the species has been uplisted to Near Threatened (BIrdLife International).

Satellite-tagging has revealed the impressive trans-oceanic migration routes of individuals between Alaska and New Zealand and shown the importance of the Yellow Sea for birds as they return north in the spring. Colour-rings and flags have shown that there has been a sudden drop in survival rates for Bar-tailed Godwits and other species using sites in China and other rapidly developing countries of South-East Asia, leading to urgent calls for conservation initiatives at an international scale. You can read more about this emerging story in these three papers.

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Learn more about the amazing migration of Bar-tailed Godwits on the New Zealand Science Learning Hub

Contrasting extreme long-distance migration patterns in bar-tailed godwit Limosa lapponica. Phil Battley et al. Journal of Avian Biology. 10.1111/j.1600-048X.2011.05473.x 

Simultaneous declines in summer survival of three shorebird species signals a flyway at risk. Theunis Piersma at al. Journal of Animal Ecology. 10.1111/1365-2664.12582

Declining adult survival of New Zealand Bar-tailed Godwits during 2005–2012 despite apparent population stability. Jesse Conklin et al. Emu. http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/MU15058

For Bar-tailed Godwits wintering in western Europe there is currently less immediate conservation concern, although there are warming conditions in their breeding grounds and over-fishing and emerging diseases of shellfish are known to be affecting estuaries on both sides of the North Sea. Things are more worrying in West Africa, where numbers have declined from 746,000 to 498,000 over a period of 30 years, according to a report by van Roomen et al. Some of these birds spend time in the Wash in the autumn on their way south.

Status of coastal waterbird populations in the East Atlantic Flyway. With special attention to flyway populations making use of the Wadden Sea. van Roomen et al.

Flying the flag

Cathy gluing

Each bird wears a two-letter flag and a white colour-ring (shown here)

Given the worsening conservation status of Bar-tailed Godwits and the gaps in our understanding of what is happening to birds that visit the Wash SPA, the WWRG decided that it would help if birds could be monitored through colour-ringing. That way, the movement and survival of individuals can be monitored using a telescope instead of relying on recapture.

The flagging of Bar-tailed Godwits on the Wash has dramatically increased the number of records of birds subsequent to ringing but the scheme is still in its early days. Flagging started in August 2010 but the first significant catch did not take place until 11 February 2012, when 56 birds was flagged. According to Phil Atkinson, who runs the WWRG database for the species, one third of the birds from this catch have been resighted alive in the four years since that catch (compared to 1% recapture rate for metal-ringed birds in the four years after the 1976 catch).

Cathy KAMost resightings have been on the Wash and those from elsewhere have tended to confirm what was known from metal ringing. A moulting bird on the Wash was seen on the Wirral (northwest England) in the same autumn, showing that birds moulting on the Wash can move elsewhere in Northwest Europe to winter. A non-moulting bird, caught at Terrington on 30 September 2011, was resighted at Ebel Khaznaya, Mauritania 50 days later. These two resightings confirmed that the Wash is an important site not only for the wintering Fenno-Scandinavian and western Siberian lapponica breeding populations but also central Siberian taymyrensis birds, that pass through in autumn to wintering areas in West Africa. The majority of overseas records have come from the Wadden Sea in spring and autumn, when birds have been on return passage to the breeding areas. There’s a 1996 summary of migratory movements of metal-ringed WWRG birds here:

The origins, moult, movements and changes in numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica on the Wash, England, Bird Study.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00063659609460996 

Aivar Estonia

UV was spotted in Estonia in August 2012

By the end of 2015, 248 Bar-tailed Godwits had been colour-ringed and 92 of them seen again, many locally on the Wash. These high resighting rates are a consequence of focused searches by WWRG members and reports from birdwatchers submitting their records to sightings@wwrg.org.uk. Over the next few years it will be possible to estimate annual survival probabilities and to monitor how these change in the medium to long term. As was shown in the Yellow Sea, spotting a dramatic drop in colour-ring return rates provides evidence that development pressures are having an impact upon migratory species. Worsening conditions in the breeding grounds or wintering areas could well be detected through a more gradual but no less serious reduction in survival rates.


GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

Lapwing moult

In most northern waders, post-breeding moult is a distinct phase – between autumn migration and the start of winter – but it’s different for Lapwings

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Primary moult is one of the key stages of a wader’s life. Knowing the length of the period in which birds are constrained by this energetic process may be really important to our understanding of the whole annual cycle of waders. In Oystercatchers, for instance, it has been shown that they cannot finish their primary moult in periods of low food abundance. One or more of the outer pairs of primaries are retained, becoming more faded and worn as the next twelve months pass and providing a signal of a previous period of stress. [See BTO report 238 by Atkinson et al.]

Lapwing in flight

The shape of a Lapwing’s wing is very different to that of most wader’s in the UK

Lapwing moult was first studied in detail in the 1970s using an innovative technique that did not require birds to be captured. By collecting primary feathers dropped by a flock of Lapwings that spent several weeks near their Buckinghamshire home, David and Barbara Snow were able to estimate the duration of moult. They did not start picking up feathers until August in 1974 but they were ready for the start of the 1975 season and captured a whole season’s worth of data that year, visiting the site every four days during a long, dry summer.

Primary wing moult

For flocks of waders in Britain and Ireland, autumn moult is generally squeezed in between their return from the arctic and sub-arctic breeding grounds and the start of winter, when days get shorter, the weather gets colder and much of the prey becomes less numerous and harder to access. In the late summer, adult birds start to discard the colourful feathers that they grew in spring and the main wing and tail feathers that have served them well for the best part of a year. The key period of moult is the time in which the ten primary feathers are replaced. The inner one (primary 1) on each wing is dropped first and the outer one is last. Each of the ten primary feathers is scored from 0 to 5, so an old wing has a score of 0 and a new wing has a score of 50. During the process, there is a gap in the wing, where new feathers are growing. A typical bird in mid-moult might have ten feathers scored as 5554332100 (moult score 28), with primary four nearly fully grown and primary eight newly discarded. Unsurprisingly, flight capacity is impeded. It’s not a great time to migrate – unless you happen to be a Lapwing.

David & Barbara Snow

Primaries

The primary feathers of a Lapwing are unusually distinctive

David & Barbara Snow were each respected ornithologists in their own right and David was the author of the BTO’s Guide to Moult in Birds and senior scientist in the bird section of what is now the Natural History Museum. Wherever they lived or worked – from Trinidad to Tring – they observed the birds around them, so when a flock of Lapwings gathered to moult near their home they decided to collect the feathers that they dropped. They discovered that it is possible to use the individual patterns of white spots and the lengths of primary feathers in order to assign primary number to discarded Lapwing feathers, and that this could be done with certainty for primaries 1, 2, 7 and 10 (with 1 being the innermost). Reference to a small sample of BTO moult cards allowed David & Barbara to assign moult scores of 1, 4, 29 and 41 to the points at which these four distinct feathers had been dropped and collected. The synchrony of moult in the two wings was evident: “Several times we found pairs of feathers lying exactly where they had been dropped, separated by a body width”.

Much of what the Snows discovered from recording in detail the feathers shed by their local flock of 70 and 120 moulting Lapwing in 1974 and 1975 is still relevant. They suggest that the collection of dropped feathers might be a useful adjunct to the study of moult in situations where birds roost in the same place on a daily basis, as might be the case for flocks of gulls or individual raptors.

David and Barbara also collected secondary feathers and tail feathers. As there is a difference between the outer tail feathers of adult and first-year birds they were able to show that early moulters included a higher proportion of first-year birds. The paper is well worth a read. David W. Snow & Barbara Snow (1976) Post-breeding Moult of the Lapwing, Bird Study, 23:2, 117-120

As far as I can ascertain, nobody has tried to use this technique again. I feel partially responsible, having written a follow-up paper with Clive Minton that pointed out some flaws in the methodology. These related to a lack of linearity in the progression of primary moult, as measured using the normal score of 0 to 50 based on 0-5 for the ten individual feathers, and the time taken to complete moult once the last primary has been dropped. Using data from Lapwing caught in cannon-net catches in the English Midlands, Clive Minton and I found that Lapwing moult starts very early, with median commencement and completion dates of about 7 June and 29 September – an estimated duration of 114 days and much longer than that suggested in the figure produced by the Snows. G. F. Appleton & C. D. T. Minton (1978) The primary moult of the Lapwing, Bird Study, 25:4, 253-256.

Lapwings are strange

Moulting Curlew

An August high-tide roost. Perhaps Curlew feathers could be collected at low tide?

Most waders that we see in the UK have distinct moult and migration phases to the post-breeding portion of their annual cycle.  After having successfully raised a brood of youngsters or attempted so to do, Turnstones, Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot etc. leave their nesting areas in the high Arctic and fly thousands of kilometres, arriving on our shores in July and August. Although some populations, such as most Dunlin of the schinzii race, only pause to fatten up and then move on to moult further south in northern Africa, many waders that use the UK during autumn undergo a full moult. One can imagine circumstances in which a small flock of inland-moulting Curlew that use the same roost site on a daily basis might be studied in the same way as the Snows studied their Buckinghamshire Lapwings, as long as the lengths and patterns on individual feathers allow the primary number of some of the individual primaries to be assigned with a degree of certainty.

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Lapwings were the first birds to be ringed in Britain & Ireland (in 1909). They appear in the logo of the BTO Ringing Scheme

Unlike most of their wader cousins, many Lapwings migrate while moulting their primary feathers. Arctic species have to make long-hop migrations and are restricted in their choice of feeding areas by the distribution of estuaries but Lapwings make short movements and can break their journeys as often as they like. The North Sea is the biggest barrier they face when making journeys from far east in Russia but a crossing from the Netherlands to Norfolk is less than 150 km. Lapwings arriving on the east coast of England have been seen to have gaps in their primaries, despite the fact that these feathers deliver most of the lift and propulsion.

Moult strategy is not the only strange thing about Lapwings; they have also been shown to exhibit abmigration, as described by Chris Mead in a paper with Jim Flegg and Chris Cox in 1968. Although most British-bred Lapwings return to their natal areas to breed, as shown by Pat Thompson et al in 1994, a small number of birds breed a long way from where they were hatched, including Russia, Norway and Sweden. The birds that go on to breed in continental Europe are assumed to join flocks which happen to be travelling east in spring. Given that British-hatched birds as old as 12 years of age have been found breeding in Russia, it is assumed that, having once travelled to a new breeding area, Lapwings will repeat the journey each year. Genetic mixing at large geographic scales would potentially explain a lack of morphological variation across the large range of the species.

Collect some feathers

Moult is currently only studied when birds have been caught but perhaps it might be possible to use digital photography to establish the primary moult duration of colour-ringed individuals or to use the Snows’ technique of collecting feathers from a moulting flock of birds over a period of a few weeks.  On an annual basis there may even be opportunities to monitor change?  A reduced rate of moult, as measured through the collection of discarded primaries, could provide a way to assess inter-annual variation in stress. I wonder if moult periods have increased for birds on the East-Asia Australia Flyway, where they are experiencing reductions in feeding opportunities on their southward migration via the Yellow Sea? Wouldn’t it be interesting if a technique first described by the Snows forty years ago could be used by a new generation of wader biologists when investigating the latest issues of conservation concern?


GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton