The Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus)

A lot of birdwatchers don't observe the Jack Snipe annual. During my research in the "Bergvennen" (near Denekamp in the Netherlands) I've had the opportunity to study unusually large numbers : over 1000 (period 1982-2007). Most of them were here during migration, but there were also significant numbers of wintering birds. Though the main goal in this area was to study the general bird-population I concentrated my effort in wintertime on this species. I will therefore describe the habitat, the behaviour and the numbers of the Jack Snipe in this area outside the breeding season.

Search method
Normally I visit the study-area every other week. Outside the breeding season I will take into account changes of weather. During periods of cold, icy weather or long droughts there are less visits. Sudden rainfall can inspire a visit. The Jack Snipe , being a species hard to observe in its habitat, deserves a special strategy.
There are two ways:
* In the company of some fellow-bird-watchers I cover a wide area just by walking with some meters distance between us.
* Being alone I walk a kind of "zigzag-run", regularly going back.
This rather intensive method of covering the area is a reason to limit my visits in the area. Patiently waiting till the bird leaves coverage is of no use here.

The Jack Snipe relies rightly on its cryptic colour. It is quite normal to find a Jack Snipe next to a footpath, while the Snipe leaves at the first sight of a visitor. The Jack Snipe prefers coverage that is scattered: a bit of reed, small tussocks, preferably badly developed vegetation Here they also look for food on a mostly muddy soil, sometimes a bit mossy.

The availability of food is dependent on the water-level. I assume that Jack Snipe and Snipe look for the same kind of food. When a small lake dries up, the Snipe with its longer beak can still reach for some food. Then the Jack Snipe tries its luck near small tussocks and footprints (mostly mine !). In the latter you can sometimes find 15-20 needle-holes as if some sewing-machine did its work. When the water-level rises the Snipe will stay longer because of its longer legs. In other words the Jack Snipe is more critical in this respect. In my research the Snipe is indeed more numerous in times of rainy weather; on the other hand the Jack Snipe will endure longer when the winter starts to influence the circumstances. After the retreat of a short wintry period the Jack Snipe will soon return, the first Snipes being quite later.
In the Bergvennen the Jack Snipe is normally more numerous, the record being 32 birds on the 5-th of October 1989 on an area of about 100 sqm ! In the nearby flood-area of a German sewer-field the Snipe is far more numerous. In this area there is less coverage, the water is eutrofic and less acid. It is not clear to me whether the low pH of the water in the Bergvennen influences the food of the Jack Snipe. Some years ago there was a restoration of the area in favour of the important vegetation: Lobelia dortmanna, Littorella uniflora. The favourite refuge of the Jack Snipe was not included, when the upper layer of the area was removed. It is therefore now a true Jack Snipe -reserve.
In the Baltic countries (and perhaps other ?) it occurs on meadows, partially covered with manure. When this has done its work, it becomes attractive for Jack Snipe. Other habitats in the Netherlands, known to me, are: the shores of lightly acid lakes (Veluwe), badly developed reed near lakes, even arid areas (!, dunes Terschelling, Spain), partially flooded areas (by the sea, Terschelling).

Jack Snipe by Harm MeekJack Snipes normally flee individually when disturbed, even when there are more than 10 birds present. Although the group as such could be called a flock they react as a single bird. Other waders fly off in groups. The Jack Snipe doesn't consider the flight of its neighbours as a signal of immediate danger, but will become alert. What I did observe several times is the retreat under tussocks. You will find little pieces of shit near tussocks and when you are very lucky you can see the bird sitting below. Because my research area is covered with all sorts of vegetation I succeeded to watch only 1 % of the birds freezing in a horizontal position (cf. Bittern).
By doing so the stripes of the back and the head form long lines, very much alike dry grass (see picture). The bird will remain so despite curious gazing birdwatchers. You can watch the bird breathing and sometimes "wave" a bit, as if moved by the wind: mimicry ? In all cases I was the one that retreated ! Sometimes this fine bird is the victim of its excellent performance: I found three times the remains of a Jack Snipe. I myself had the bad luck of killing a bird with my boot. I suppose there also some victims due to reed-cutting.
In most cases the bird flees silently, but about 10% of them utters a soft croak, after being disturbed. The Snipe calls more immediate and louder. Though I didn't keep good records on this issue I get the impression that particularly birds belonging to a flock (over 10 ) are calling; being rather "on their own" they are yet warning their companions (?). The percentage of calling birds in flocks over 10 is about 20% while single birds and small flocks (up to 5) usually remain silent. While the bird is flying up you have enough characteristics to discern it from the Snipe:
1. in small flocks the birds are silent, while the Snipe has a very distinct repeated call.
2. the proportion beak-length/ head-length; with the Snipe the beak is clearly longer, not in the Jack Snipe.
3. it flies in a long curve, landing after 50-70 meters, while the Snipes rises steeper with fast hooks and leaves the area , its wingbeats are more powerful. A Jack Snipe which was already disturbed flees sooner the second time!

Seasonal variation
I will deal with the numbers in the Bergvennen now. In this part of Europe the Jack Snipe migrates on a broad front. Sometimes concentrations of birds will occur due to persistent easterly winds: there are "good" and "bad" years, but I am no sure whether this is the consequence of these winds alone. The availability of suitable habitat seems of more influence (see below) In an average year the first birds arrive here in the latter half of September and leave the area in the second half of April, some late birds first week of May. The diagram below is based on my research during the period 1982-1997 with over 600 counted birds.

Comment with this diagram
1. The migration in the fall starts in September, reaches its peak in October; November shows sometimes great numbers.
2. In a mild winter a small number of birds stays in the area.
3. Migration in spring is less conspicuous than in fall.
4. There are some details to be mentioned. In some years there was an influx of snow and ice during December and also in February. In these winters the numbers are decreasing rapidly, after which there is a small number of returning birds. During short periods of ice and snow the birds persist along small ditches with running water. This seems to be the same kind of behaviour as in the Shetlands where birds during snowy periods flee towards the coast. When the thaw sets in after a longer period of very cold weather it takes a few weeks before they have returned. Obviously they have left the country permanently.
5. In times of rain and rising water-levels the Jack Snipe leaves the Bergvennen. The area itself has become less suitable for the short-legged birds and there is now a fast choice of habitat in wet meadows.

Longterm developments (added february 2017)

During the period 1982-2017 Over 1100 Jack Snipes were counted in the Bergvennen by me. Therefore it is possible to draw some conclusions about longterm developments. This is however only possible fort the period after the changes of 1993/94, when important parts of the habitat were lost. Generally speaking the migratory population in the Bergvennen is stable, with some variation due to waterlevel and temperature.

General Conclusions
1. The Jack Snipe relies very much on its cover and will, when disturbed, seldom warn its "fellow-travellers".
2. As a consequence of 1. they normally fly up single.
3. When the bird notices a birdwatcher (e.g.) it will stop feeding, looking for cover and freeze.
4. The Jack Snipe prefers habitats which form a transition between wet and dry areas, the shores of lakes, drying up of small ponds, wet terrain after a rainfall.
5. In mild winters the birds stay in this reserve.
6. The bird is very flexible in its attitude towards the weather, always prepared to change the location.

Literature, which I consulted
Nothing in particular, only the great works, like the Birds of the WP and the Handbuch der VM
Some useful reactions by E-mail

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Harm A. Meek
De Plevier 7
7591 JJ Denekamp
the Netherlands