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.
After breeding (from about August) the species exchanges the meadows and fens of Eurasia’s tundra and taiga zones for the tropical floodplains and swamps of Africa. It seems that initially a large part of the population migrates south-west through the eastern Mediterranean to gathers in high-plateau grasslands in Ethiopia. Here they remain until about October, when they follow the rains to West, Central and Southern Africa. Arrival in southern Africa is from about September, but mainly from November. The birds remain until about March, depending very much on rainfall. That being said, they are often found in drier grassy habitats than other snipes, and may even forage in e.g. neglected agricultural fields, golf courses, puddles etc – wherever their nerve-tipped bills can probe in the soft mud for worms, insect larvae, small molluscs and other nutritious, organic, wholesome snacks.
Okay. So. Great Snipes were previously common but then decreased, and now occur sparsely and erratically in the subtropical wetlands of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and northern Namibia/Botswana. But what about in South Africa? Here the trail goes cold after the 1984 sighting(s) at Lake St Lucia. As far as I could (quickly) determine, the only other claim after that was from Marievale Bird Sanctuary in Gauteng on 2 February 2003. However, that sighting was never confirmed [if it was your sighting, please email me!]. That is, until Toni Geddes emailed me some pictures of an “interesting-looking snipe” that she encountered, along with her dad Rob, in the Sweni area of central Kruger National Park in December 2014. Could this be our first confirmed Great Snipe in 30 years? I was understandably hesitant with an instant ID – but after careful study, I don’t doubt that this was indeed a Great Snipe. Check out the photos below.
ABOVE: In addition to being notably larger than African Snipes, Greats have a dumpy, ball-shape with a big head and eye, which makes their bill look even shorter. They are generally much paler on the wing coverts and scapulars than Africans, showing a much greyer overall tone, instead of the rich black-and-gold of Africans. Photo by Toni Geddes.
ABOVE: Probably the single most visible feature on Great Snipe is the unique, prominent white spots on the wing coverts, which form parallel rows when neatly lined up. Here you can also see that the flank markings on Great Snipe are chevrons or sideways Vs, and not parallel wavy bars as in African Snipe. Photo by Toni Geddes.
ABOVE: One of the intial concerns with the ID of this bird was the white belly, as some books claim Great Snipes have barred bellies. Not so – this bird shows extensive barring with just a small white belly patch, which is typical for Great Snipes. An African Snipe would shown have only limited barring on the outer flanks at this angle. The unusually dark crown of this bird suggests to me that it might be in worn body plumage and due for a moult. Photo by Toni Geddes.
ABOVE: Great Snipes have fully barred underwing coverts, as shown by this bird. That being said, a small minority of African Snipes can also show barred underwings, but most have a contrasting white bar on the central underwing coverts that is very obvious in flight. As long-distance migrants, Great Snipes have slightly longer wings than Africans, but I don’t think that is a particularly useful ID feature. Photo by Toni Geddes.
ABOVE: The abovementioned white tips to the coverts form very prominent parallel white bars on the wing in flight, and the greater coverts are very dark – forming a blackish bar across the wing. Great Snipes often hold their bills more horizontal in flight compared to Africans (although don’t base your ID only on that!). Photo by Toni Geddes.
ABOVE: Again showing the prominent white wing-bars nicely. Importantly, in Great Snipe there are also large white tips to the primary coverts – i.e. the outermost, lowermost white semi-circle that you can see in this image. This bird also seems to have a lot of white on and around its alula feathers. Photo by Toni Geddes.
ABOVE: As I mentioned, Great Snipes have very prominent white covert tips that form a series of parallel rows on the upperwing, while their underwings are entirely barred. These paintings are from my upcoming book, Chamberlain’s Waders (watch promo video here), which will be available towards the end of 2016.
ABOVE: African Snipes have far less obvious white tips on their coverts, and have nearly unmarked primary coverts. Most African Snipes show a pale bar on the central underwing, although a few are a little more barred. These paintings are from my upcoming book, Chamberlain’s Waders (watch promo video here), which will be available towards the end of 2016.
ABOVE: Typically, snipes are only glimpsed when they are unexpectedly flushed while walking through a muddy, squelchy wetland. Flight styles may provide some ID clues, but ideally you also want to confirm some salient features. Great Snipes (here flushed by a skinny Mozambican cow) usually rise silently but may produce a low, gruff croak. They do make a loud wing-fluttering noise though. Once airborne, they usually fly relatively slowly and level. This painting is from my upcoming book, Chamberlain’s Waders (watch promo video here), which will be available towards the end of 2016.
ABOVE: Conversely, African Snipes make a startlingly loud call when flushed (which to me sounds like their name, ‘schnipe’) and tend to fly in an erratic, zig-zag fashion. This painting is from my upcoming book, Chamberlain’s Waders (watch promo video here), which will be available towards the end of 2016.
But that’s not all folks! Only a few days later, on 12 January 2015, Don Cowie and Shelley Hedges found themselves sitting in the SAPPI-Stanger hide and Mbozambo Wetland on the northern bank of the uMvoti River in Kwazulu-Natal. They spotted a snipe foraging in some cover to the right of the hide, but initually dismissed it as an African Snipe which is a common bird at that spot. However, the bird later appeared right out in the open in front of the hide, and Don got a feeling that something was different about this bird. In particular, the short bill and the white markings on the wing caught his eye. He suspected that he had found a Great Snipe – but couldn’t completely banish the uncertainty. After all, this was to his knowledge, the first Great Snipe in South Africa in three decades. Also, despite extensive birding in Zimbabwe Don had never before encountered this species. The snipe was remarkably cooperative and spent at least an hour in front of the hide. Wisely, Don took as many photos as he could, and I’m so very glad he did because now I can share his fantastic photos with you…of another Great Snipe in South Africa! Don’s range of stunning photos illustrate all the identification features of Great Snipes beautifully (see my commentary in the captions), and thanks to him South African birders now have an excellent reference when attempting to identifying interesting-looking snipes.
I don’t think these two records – the first in the country for thirty years – got the attention they deserved when they broke. Surely Great Snipes are widely overlooked and might still occur in their former South African range in small numbers. It is also likely that certain climatic conditions may cause erratic influxes in some years – our recent glut of Spotted Crakes being a case-in-point. It is still too early to say whether Great Snipes are making a comeback in South Africa, but birders should definitely be on the lookout. And now you know what to look out for.
A bunch of us from Durban were alerted to the Stanger Great Snipe by Trevor Hardaker and we went early in the morning before work but without any luck.
Hi Penny – sorry to hear you dipped on the Great Snipe. It seems Don was just in the right place at the right time.
Fantastic write-up Faansie!
Have you perhaps considered the occurrence of Common Snipe in Southern Africa, particularly given its similarity to African Snipe and the likelihood of it being overlooked?
Yes, I have sleepless nights about overlooked Common Snipes in SA, but as you say, distinguishing that species from African Snipe would be a challenge indeed. I see many older texts treat them as conspecific, and their calls are also similar. Common Snipe is slightly paler overall, with less distinct barring on the flanks and hardly any white on the outer tail. It also has longer, more pointed wings and a shorter bill. Commons tend to fly higher than Africans when flushed, but I am not sure how reliable that would be as an ID character.
Ja, I guess one would need some pretty solid evidence to get a Common past the committee. I seem to recall there are some records of Common and Jack Snipe (wouldn’t that be cool!) from Zambia, so you never know…
I did find a place on your website to order the books!!!
Thank you again for great work.