Today, seeing a Great Snipe is a great accomplishment. I’ve only run into Gallinago media at two places: a dambo near the village of Marondera on Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland Plateau, back in 1998; and the floodplains at Rio Savane, north of Beira in central Mozambique, on more recent occasions. I’ll venture that most birders now add this species to their lifelists at the latter locality. Although the Great Snipe now occurs very sparsely in southern Africa, being mainly confined to temporary subtropical wetlands north of the Limpopo River, the situation was dramatically different little more than a century ago. Back in the day, i.e. the mid 1800s, Great Snipes used to occur very widely in South Africa, where it was described as fairly common summer visitor to the ‘Transvaal’ (incorporating the current provinces Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and parts of North-West). It was also regular in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape and even occurred as a rare visitor in the Western Cape.
In fact, it was so common that it was hunted in large numbers. There is a rather disturbing anecdote of a hunter boasting shooting ‘bags of ten or twelve couple made before breakfast’ in Durban’s Eastern Vlei (which, by the way, is now drained). Perhaps the rather slower- and more level-flying, and larger Great Snipes were a somewhat easier target than their smaller African cousins, Gallinago nigripennis. The latter species flushes close underfoot, and flies up with a loud, abrupt call often likened to the sound made when withdrawing a boot from wet mud (although I suspect the author of that comparison may have been influenced by his/her predicament at the time). I suspect this sound is also where the name snipe comes from. Say it aloud and you get a fair approximation of what yanking a boot out of the mud sounds like. I would be interested though, if someone can offer an explanation as to the origins of the name Dubbelsnip / Double Snipe / Doppelschnepfe / Dobbeltbekkasin / Bécassine double for the Great Snipe – is this simply because of its large size? Anyways…loud, panicked calls probably serve multiple purposes e.g. warning other snipes nearby and startling the predator/birder/boot withdrawer) in order to win an extra millisecond to escape. Once airborne, African Snipes make off like a bat out of hell (a snipe out of a marsh?) with an erratic, twisting, zig-zagging flight that, I’m told, makes them very hard to shoot.
This challenge, the combination of a bird that is cryptic and secretive, lives in inacessible wetland habitats, and employs a fast and erratic escape-flight, makes the snipe a prized quarry of wingshooters. In addition, many historical books emphatically state that fresh snipe paired with a red wine makes a heavenly meal. Snipe-hunting is a tradition that dates back many centuries, and was once an extremely popular sport. The agility and speed of a flying snipe is so that only marksmen of extraordinary skill can hit the bird, which explains the origins of the term ‘sniper’. Apparently this term was first used by British troops deployed in India in the 1770s, where they hunted snipes for sport. But in its modern usage (i.e. in the military context) the term ‘sniper’ is said to have originated in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century: during the Second Boer War, units of expert sharp-shooters, who relied on stealth and cryptic attire for camouflage (much like snipes themselves), became known as snipers.
About a century ago it seemed to vanish entirely. After one was shot in Pondoland sometime between 1904 and 1907, the Great Snipe was not seen in South Africa for about 80 years.
In southern Africa, the African Snipe was hunted in large numbers until about the 1940s, but this past-time has waned in modern times. There is no direct evidence that historical hunting resulted in changes in its distribution or numbers. But these trends can easily be masked by changes in habitat availability and quality. African Snipes probably benefited greatly from the construction of a multitude of farm dams in agricultural reasons, and one of their favourite micro-habitats is the marshy, muddy edges of dams that have been trampled and opened up by cattle coming to drink. However, general wetland loss and degradation is likely to have had a negative effect.
Ditto for Greats. Hunting could certainly not have gone in the ‘pro’s column’, but habitat loss may have been a bigger contributor to the disappearance of the Great Snipe from South Africa. About a century ago it seemed to vanish entirely. After one was shot in Pondoland sometime between 1904 and 1907, the Great Snipe was not seen in South Africa for about 80 years. The first resurgence was in 1984, when one was seen on the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia (iSimangaliso) in KZN. Interestingly, the species was not know from Zimbabwe prior to the 1920’s, but appears to have become established there sometime after that, and was regular by the 1960’s. They can also be locally common in northern Namibia in years of good rainfall.
It is also possible that changes in our neck of the woods may have just been a reflection of the dramatic crashes that occurred on the boreal breeding grounds in 1850-1900. The breeding range of the Great Snipes stretches from Norway, Finland and Sweden, eastwards through Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania to Russia (which holds the bulk of the global breeding population). Rapid declines in some areas of the breeding grounds are attributable to habitat loss due to conversion for agriculture (read more on the BirdLife International Species Factsheet). The global population is now estimated at anything from 118,000 birds to 1,051,000. In May and June male Great Snipes gather at communal leks to dance, flutter, puff up their chests, fan their tails, clatter their bills and do whatever else they can to make up for the fact that they lack an aerial display flight, like most snipes. Instead, they sing an utterly bizarre song described by words like ‘clicking’, buzzing’, ‘twittering’ and even ‘blibbing’. You can listen to the song here or watch the awesome video clip by Karl-David Arvidsson below.