The boy, the man and the Jack Snipe: why I jump for joy at being a naturalist

jack snipe

 

‘Is it a “Jack” snipe because it is like a jack-in-a-box?’ were the words I overheard from someone standing near me. A fair question, because as it feeds this tiny wader (technically it is called Lymnocryptes minimus) from Arctic Russia bobs up and down, the body performing a rhythmic movement that I timed at about one bob per second.

The seemingly involuntary vertical motion is in a separate plane to the jack snipe’s frenetic, horizontal mud-probing action, which I reckoned it was repeating at about five stabs every second. So in a minute of feeding the bird simultaneously pops up and down and jabs the head and beak forward at a rough ratio of 60:360. Let’s be frank: this is hilarious stuff. (Check out the various Youtube pieces here, apologies for the music).

But to answer the person’s question, this bouncing behaviour doesn’t explain the name. ‘Jack’ – first recorded in the seventeenth century – is a reference to the species’ size. It is a ‘little’ snipe, compared with the once-abundant resident bird known as a common snipe.

What I find entrancing about this secretive creature is that it reveals its identity, aside from the distinctive jack-in-a-box behaviour, by relative or negative capabilities. Jack snipes are less than their relatives. When visiting Britain they are also silent. In all my life I’ve never heard so much as a peep. They’re famous, when flushed, for flying less than common snipe and sometimes even refusing to move at all (for this reason the French call it Bécassine sourde, the ‘deaf snipe’). In fact the first I ever saw 46 years ago was plucked bodily by a friend like a gold-and-emerald treasure from out of its rush couch.

Since that moment a jack snipe has gifted me, through these negative details, an understanding of its identity each subsequent time that we have met. The process of acknowledgement by one species unto another, observer towards the observed, is for me the greatest privilege enjoyed by any naturalist. I recommend it to everyone. It peoples every day with so many live encounters; it has crowded a lifetime with ‘friends’, and around each of their names has accumulated a deep well of memories. So that an hour by a muddy pool with a little bobbing bird is part of a life steeped in meaning.

(The lovely photograph is courtesy of my good friend David Tipling, the wunderkind of British nature photography  The short article is taken from my Guardian country diary. You can find it on 29 October 2019. Confines of space meant that it was cut and part of the article’s real significance was lost. I’m posting it here so I can restore it to the original.)