Sunday, 17 January 2016

Latham’s Snipe

Latham’s Snipe (Gallinago hardwickii) are medium sized migrant shorebirds (waders) which breed in northern Japan, nearby Sakhalin and Ussuriland and winter in south eastern Australia. This snipe, once common is southeast Australia, was first described by John Latham (1740-1837) ornithologist (1), from a specimen collected in Tasmania.

Latham’s Snipe showing bold patterns and subtle colours – the rich rufous central tail feathers are not always as visible as they are in this shot.
 While Latham’s Snipe display bold patterns at close range they are cryptic in the field, blending in beautifully with their marsh and rough tussock - grassland habitats usually located in or near fresh water wetlands. They can be found in coastal wetlands and in suitable inland habitats, including high alpine grasslands and bogs.

They are extremely wary birds, mostly found by flushing when they burst into rapid jinking (zig zag) flight accompanied by a rasping ‘chak’ alarm call, often diving into dense cover not far from the flush point. Once a legal game bird in Australia, it is not surprising they are cautious and hard to approach. The word “sniper” once referred to a man who could shoot snipe.

On the other hand, they are sometimes found resting in relatively open situations along wetland margins during the day including public parks in urban areas where they become a little less wary when acclimatised to the presence of humans. They are mostly dawn, dusk and moonlight night feeders however this is not always the case as the bird in these photos demonstrates.

The bird in the photographs of this post was found during a Latham’s Snipe survey I volunteered for. The subject bird, somewhat atypically, was out feeding mid morning on a mowed grass vacant allotment at the Toonalook Waters housing estate in Paynesville.

Western section of Toonalook Waters Estate lagoon taken from bridge.
Unfortunately, once the estate is fully developed there will be little suitable Latham’s Snipe habitat left. The development and use of backyards shows little appreciation of the wetland habitat – perhaps the main attraction for owners is a pretty view of water and the rest is problematic, even a threat, to be fenced out.

The bird was engrossed in feeding and the light was just right, a perfect photo opportunity too good to pass up for this hard to photograph species. So I took the liberty of driving onto the vacant allotment to get close enough for photos. Motor vehicles often make great hides as many bird species do not see them as threatening and do not recognise the humans inside. I would certainly have had no hope approaching on foot to get close enough for good shots.

The bird continued to feed, probing the grass with its long straight bill and from time to time “jack hammering” at some tasty morsel buried in the soil. I tried to capture photos of the activity, hoping to get some shots with food items visible in the bill for identification before they went down the hatch.

Probing the grass for food items.
While probing for food an eye is looking out for predators.
Bill still partially open following consumption of a food item I tried to capture in the bill before swallowing – the bird was too fast for me.
Eventually after several failed shots this photo just caught the food before it was swallowed – the tail end of a Cockchafer larva (3rd instar) is clearly visible.

Latham’s Snipe consume a wide range of foods including insects, spiders, earthworms and also seeds. However, on this occasion I think the bird’s probing and hammering was focused on Cockchafer larva.

Snipe have relatively large eyes which are no doubt useful for foraging at night and the eyes are set high on the head, giving these ground dwellers an exceptionally good view of the sky above. Also the eye position allows vision to the rear. They seem to have all angles covered.
This was my last photo, I was way too slow to capture the amazing burst of speed as the bird launched and then rocketed off over the Cumbungi to an island in the lagoon.

The bird was spooked and it stopped foraging.  It is about to take flight; the body is tilted forward.

(1)  You can see more on John Latham here:

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