The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
The Common Snipe is an oddly shaped wader with an oversized bill. Despite a drab appearance from a distance, these skulking birds are intricately patterned to break up their outline in their marshy habitat. They are stocky birds with large yellowish legs and unwebbed feet.
Snipes are beautifully camouflaged above, with distinctive pale stripes on the wings and back. The head and face are striped, with a dark crown and a dark streak through each eye, making their already impressive bill look even longer. Their underparts are almost pure white, although barring on the flanks and chest merge with their darker upper parts.
Male, female, and juvenile Snipes all appear very similar, although males have longer tail feathers and shorter bills.
The Common Snipe is the most frequently encountered snipe species in the UK, although there are similar species that may confuse birdwatchers. The Jack Snipe is a much rarer visitor to the UK. Shyer in nature, this species can be distinguished by its much shorter bill and more prominently striped back.
Snipe in the wetlands
Snipes have a body length of 23 - 28 centimetres (9 - 11 inches). Their impressive probing bills are about 2.5 inches long.
Snipes weigh 80 to 120 grams or roughly 3 to 4 ounces.
Common Snipes have a wingspan of 39 to 45 centimetres (15 - 18 inches).
Snipe in its natural habitat
Snipes and other similar birds have an interesting way of producing sounds. Continue reading to learn more about Snipe songs and calls.
The male Snipe courts the female with a song produced with his feathers rather than his voice. This sound, known as drumming, is similar to a bleating goat. They also make a scratchy ‘scrape’ call when flushed.
Snipe singing to attract its mate
Snipes search for food in soft, muddy substrates by probing with their bill in search of worms. They also eat many other invertebrates, including insect larvae, crustaceans, and molluscs. Berries and seeds make up a small proportion of their diet.
Both Snipe parents feed the young. Each parent is responsible for half of the brood, feeding them directly bill-to-bill with small invertebrates.
Snipe feeding in the lake
Snipes are commonly associated with well-vegetated fresh and upper estuarine wetland environments.
Look out for these birds in the following habitats:
The Snipe is the most widely distributed wader in the UK, particularly in the winter. They occur in suitable habitats throughout the British Isles, with the exception of high-lying parts of Scotland.
Elsewhere, the species has a wide geographical range that extends through Europe and Asia to eastern Russia, across Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and across central and East Africa.
Snipes are wading birds. They spend their lives on the ground near the edges of water bodies and in shallow flooded areas.
They can swim well, although this behaviour is rarely seen. Unlike most waders, Snipes can perch on relatively small branches, although they are more comfortable on the ground, on rocks, or on posts.
Snipes occur in fair numbers in the summer when about 67,000 pairs breed in the UK. However, they are far more common in the winter when the population may swell to over a million individuals.
Snipe foraging for food in wetlands
The Common Snipe does not occur in North America, although American birdwatchers can see the similar Wilson’s Snipe (G. delicata) in wetland habitats practically anywhere on the continent.
Wilson’s Snipe is a migratory species that breeds primarily in the north of the USA and further north in Canada and Alaska. They overwinter across most of the Lower 48 and are resident throughout the year in the Northwest.
Birdwatchers can see Snipes around just about any well-vegetated wetland in the winter, although moorland is the best place to look in the breeding season. These birds are shy and elusive, so watching quietly from a hide may give the best results.
Snipe standing in shallow water stretching its wings
Common Snipes can live for at least 18 years, although their average life expectancy is approximately three years.
Little information is available on the predators of the Common Snipe, although small waders are vulnerable to birds of prey like Peregrines and Marsh Harriers. In North America, the similar Wilson’s Snipe is hunted by various carnivores, including the Great-horned Owl and the Northern Goshawk.
Common Snipes in the UK are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The Snipe has an Amber Conservation status in the UK and is globally classified as a ‘Least Concern’ species.
Pair of Snipes in natural habitat
Snipes breed in moorland in the United Kingdom, selecting a well-hidden, dry spot on the ground surrounded by reeds and other wetland vegetation. The female prepares the nest, which is a simple scrape in the ground lined with soft grass.
Common Snipes nest in the spring and summer. They lay their eggs between April and June, and incubation usually takes 17 to 21 days.
Snipes lay four eggs, each measuring approximately 40 millimetres long and 28 millimetres wide. Their eggs vary between pale green and buff colour and are variously spotted and blotched in darker brown shades.
Snipes are monogamous in the breeding season, although both sexes will mate with other partners until they settle down to incubate eggs and raise their chicks. Pair bonds last only for a single season.
Snipe sitting on its nest
Nest of a Snipe with four eggs
Snipes are generally shy and elusive, although they are territorial and may act aggressively towards each other. Aggressive territorial behaviour may occur at the start of the breeding season or in crowded foraging areas. Aggressive birds fan their tails and hold them up at a steep angle. They will fight by ‘fencing’ with their sword-like bills until either opponent flees.
Territorial Snipe fanning its tail
Snipes occur in the United Kingdom throughout the year as a breeding resident, although the population grows much larger each winter when migrants arrive from Northern Europe.
The common Snipe is not native to North America, although until recently, the American Wilson’s Snipe was considered the same species.
Snipes are a native species in the United Kingdom, with records dating back as far as the Anglo-Saxon period.
Common Snipes are not the same as Woodcocks, although the two are superficially similar, and both belong to the Scolopacidae family. The nocturnal Woodcock has a shorter bill and legs than the Snipe and is more at home in woodlands and moist forests.
Snipes are popular gamebirds, prized by hunters and sold by some butchers. Interestingly, these small birds are traditionally cooked without removing most of their innards.
To many, the Snipe is a bird of fiction, conjured up to fool hopeful young hunters into sitting out alone as a practical joke or right of passage. For this prank, the victim is instructed to sit out in the marsh at night while attempting to lure in or capture a bird whose description varies according to those who describe it! Of course, the Snipe is a real bird, although its shy nature makes it challenging to see and even more difficult to capture.
Snipe hunting is popular with wing shooters in many parts of the world. These small birds are flushed from their wetland habitats, and their zig-zagging flight path makes them a challenging but rather unsubstantial target. Open seasons and bag limits vary by country and state.
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
23cm to 28cm
39cm to 45cm
80g to 120g
The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
The Ruddy Turnstone is an attractive shorebird, frequently seen flipping stones in search of small creatures sheltering beneath. These long-distance migrants visit temperate and tropical coastlines across the globe but return to the Arctic each year to nest.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
A rare breeding wading bird in the UK, ruffs are among the most intriguing bird species on Earth, due to the diversity not just between males and females, but also between the three distinctly different types of males that occur.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
Unlike many wading bird species, in red-necked phalaropes the traditional roles are reversed. The female is larger, brighter and leaves parental care of the young to the drabber, smaller male. Also, unusual for waders, red-necked phalaropes spend up to 9 months at sea once breeding in the upper northern hemisphere is complete.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Red knots, known simply as ‘knots’ in the UK are medium-sized shorebirds that undertake impressive annual migrations of up to 30,000 km (18,000 mi) each year between Arctic breeding grounds and southern coastal wintering habitats.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.
A medium wading bird, named after its brightly coloured legs, the greenshank breeds in northern Scotland, as well as further to the east across Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, an influx of greenshanks descends upon wetlands and marshes and along the coast of south-west England, Wales, Ireland and north-east Scotland. Tens of thousands of birds migrate significantly further afield, reaching the coasts of Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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