The little goats of the air arrive

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

I heard them first at night, in the tail of the wind. Soft wings came falling from the cloud, through a moonlit soup of drizzling mist. Apart from the occasional sharp cry of alarm as one of the new arrivals took fright at some unseen terror they were silent. I imagined them standing on one leg among the blackened sedge and knew that in the morning I would have to go and see.
Midwinter dawn in the west; Thin light creeping from the east, a rimy edge to the reeds and at the edge of the lake an ephemeral coating of ice that crunched a warning to the birds I hoped to see. They must have heard me from afar and crouched low at my approach, trusting their brown-barred plumage to keep them concealed. I used binoculars to try and gain advantage, yet nothing could be seen amid that rank vegetation.
Another step was one too far and the first twisting missile of a bird shot away just ten feet ahead, doing so with a shriek to put every one of its neighbors on alert: ‘’Scape! ’Scape!’ A few additional steps saw 30 birds follow suit as fear finally sprang them skyward, then another group of the same number went after, their scratching cries a repeated echo, one off the other, until the marsh was empty and poor once more.
Every year snipe come here to feed. The number that arrive depends on the severity of the weather in their homeland. The colder it is to the east, the further west they come, although sometimes the prevailing wind either carries or drives them off course, which I think must have happened in this case, for we have more than the usual complement.
I heard an old countryman say, ‘There’s winter enough for the snipe and the woodcock’. And it’s true – there’s a long way to go before the warmth of spring gets either of those species thinking of leaving. We shall enjoy them while they are here.
I already feel anxious for my snipe, for I know that others will have seen them too, and there will be men with guns looking for seasonal sport.
Mind you, to watch a well-trained dog quartering the ground ahead of a good shot is fascinating. A spaniel works tirelessly, back and forth, up and down, leaving no square inch unfound and lifting every bird there. His owner can afford to be profligate with his gun. A miss doesn’t matter for there will be the chance of sport and a dinner at the end of the day. Yet he takes pride in is work. Bang! Bang! A left and a right! Two small birds go into the game bag slung over his shoulder, barely a mouthful, leaving me to mourn the day, for there are nowhere near as many of these delicate little creatures as there used to be.
At least these birds so close to home are protected. Some will remain on the lake shore, while others will disperse into the low land around the area where they become fair game. And who should deny the hardworking farmer his share in such winter bounty? For many years it has been the foreign sportsmen arriving in droves from the continent who entertain themselves with our wintering snipe. Shooting has become big business; an organised two-day snipe shoot with accommodation might run close to four figures.
I wonder how the number of birds here compares with the historical past? Were there so many more, as I suspect to be the case? According to Birdlife International, there may be as many as 29 million common snipe in the world, at least a hundred of which are just yards from my door. Although the population of these pretty waders appears to be on that too-familliar downward trend they are still classified as a species of least concern. On the other hand it seems that we have lost 50 percent our resident breeding snipe in the last 40 years.
Sometime in March those of the flock that came only for the winter will embark on the return journey to their breeding grounds, leaving our few residents behind. Then again we shall hear that delicious sound into twilight as our Naosach, the ‘little goat of the air’ combs at the sky with his specially-shaped, ginger-feathered tail.
What fine things we share our world with. May they be there always.