Sniping: Friday, 11th February 2022

Both Snipe and Jack Snipe regularly overwinter at Blakehill Farm. They can be seen pretty much anywhere on the site when the ground has been softened by the weather. One place that is a regular spot is the middle pond of the three on the west of the site. With lockdown and other issues, last year we didn’t manage to get out for a Snipe catching session. Our first go for these birds at the site was back in January 2019. We caught three Snipe and one Jack Snipe: I gave Andrew and Jonny a Snipe each, with one for me and my first ever Jack Snipe.

Remarkably, in January 2020 Jonny and I tried again and this time we also caught four birds: three Jack Snipe and one Snipe, so Jonny got to ring his first two Jack Snipe, I got my second and another Snipe. I did run another session in early February 2020, to see if we could catch some Snipe for other members of the team. Unfortunately, that day we drew a blank.

I was hopeful that there might be some Snipe about that we could have a go for this week. The forecast for today was for it to be flat calm: a lull in a windy week. On Monday, hoping that the forecast would be correct, I took a trip over to see whether there were any Snipe about. As I approached the middle pond six Snipe flew off. When I got a bit nearer, 3 Jack Snipe decided it was time to make their exit. That decided me: we would try for a session on Friday. The pond itself is very full and the birds were gathered in the swampy tussock grass at the eastern end. Three Stonechat showing really well were an added bonus.

Knowing that I would be setting up in full darkness, and away from my usual positions, I decided to go back yesterday and use some bamboo canes to mark where each of the poles would be set for the 2 x 12m and 1 x 18m wader nets (50mm mesh size) I planned to use to form a cul-de-sac. As luck would have it, I flushed 15 Snipe.

I arrived on site at 5:40 this morning and was followed into the carpark by another car. I had agreed with Ellie and Tanya that they would arrive at 6:00 so, knowing Ellie as I have for a long time, I assumed it was Tanya. First time out, keen as mustard etc. Only, it was the police. Momentary trepidation dissipated as soon as they asked if I worked for Oak & Furrows. They were sharing the car with two Canada Geese that had been injured on a local road. They had tried calling the O&F phone line and were looking for their site. Lucky for them, I had the code for the padlock and could direct them to the facility.

I started setting my three nets, was joined by Ellie and Tanya at just after 6:00, as arranged, and we had the three nets open in short order. It was still very dark, so we set up the ringing station a couple of hundred metres away from the net set, and sat and waited for it to get light. Whilst setting up I flushed a couple of Mallard from the pond, but no Snipe (which I think was a good thing).

As it was beginning to get light, a couple of Canada Geese flew in and landed on the pond but away from the nets. At about 6:50 there was quite a lot of squawking from the geese and I could see the 18m net moving. My first thought was that one of the geese was in the net, so we ran over to try and rescue the net but, as we got closer, both geese flew off. There in the 18m net was a Snipe and in the adjacent 12m net, a Blackbird. I extracted the Snipe and Ellie took the Blackbird. There is an art to removing birds from these large mesh nets. It isn’t hard, just different from the nets we usually work with and you just have to be a bit more careful, particularly with freeing the wings.

Having missed out on them the last time she came along (because we all did), Ellie got to ring her first Snipe:

As it turned out, those were the only birds we caught all morning. A little later on we went over to look at the easternmost pond and, sure enough, two Snipe flew off. Forgetting the old adage about shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, I decided to set my 2 x 18 2-shelf wader nets adjacent to where we had disturbed them. I shouldn’t have bothered. What I should have done was go with my initial instincts and set those nets up immediately after setting the first three, whilst it was still dark. Lesson learned.

Ellie had to leave just after 8:00 to get to work, and Tanya left a little later still to get to her job with the Wildlife Trust. I sat back and enjoyed watching the birds flying around. As the sun came up and the weather warmed, it turned into a beautiful winter’s day. I checked the nets regularly, but they remained empty, s0 at 10:45 I started to take them down and began to leave site at 11:15. I say began because I got some good birding in on my way out.

As I left the pond area I put up a mixed flock of Redwing and Fieldfare in the adjacent field. There were at least 40 birds. I haven’t seen any of either species for a while, so it was good to see. I plan to be back to try for Snipe again the next wind-free day, but I will also set nets for these thrushes. On my journey back to the main gate I saw three Stonechat and a superb male Kestrel. Despite only two birds caught, I thoroughly enjoyed this morning’s session.

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