Andy Brown is the new Featured Writer. His fabulous new book is called The Fool and the Physician and you can read some of his latest poems on this site. Meanwhile, if you want to know about snipey goings-on at nightfall on Dartmoor, read on … and, in case you don’t know, a collection of snipe is known as a … wisp –
A wisp of snipe
Dusk was coming in like a tide from the forested valley and flooding the moors. Blackbirds were singing from the thick hedge on the riverlet’s bank where there was more darkness than anywhere else. It fell silent but the blackbirds continued for a while, gradually faltered, started up again before fading out into silence.
It wasn’t quite dark when an energy ran across the marshland as a breeze stirred the old reed beds, the tussocks, the lying water glinting in the last of the light, the new leaves on the hawthorn trees.
Not far away a bird eerily cried chupa-chupa-chupa … sounding much like a child’s bicycle with a squeaky wheel.
Nearby, something in the marshes seemed to be twitching. My eyes strained to make out anything in the gloaming. Maybe it was the breeze rustling through the dead bracken stalks. But maybe it was something else. A tremulous humming rose up and stopped. It sounded like wind being blown through a hollow reed. The air was prickling with things unseen by human eye. A few stars suddenly glimmered.
The short humming sound, difficult to describe, became more frequent. It was like a bleat, a croak, or like a thrumming on two notes of varying intensity as it seemed to draw closer, and then again moved away across the expanse of bog. The chupa-chupa-chupa squeaking was intermittent but the two calls were connected, as if they listened for each other, indeed were searching for one another.
What I was listening to was snipe “drumming”. It’s difficult to understand why the sound is called drumming: a complete misnomer. Because it is similar to the sound of a goat – the Finnish call snipe “Taivaanvuohi” which means “sky goat.”
During April snipe breed in the marshes in moorland areas where they probe for food with extremely long and sensitive beaks. They forage in mud, and shallow water searching for insect larvae, worms, insects.
The male, in display, flies up high (but I could not make this out at all, try as I might) to dive through the air, fanning his tail feathers which make this distinctive eerie sound while the female is busy screeching out chupa-chupa. On moonlit nights they may continue to “drum” all night.
Sitting on a mossy rock one night, listening to every noise, I was startled to hear a thunder of feet…thundery because it has been so dry so far this spring. The beating hoofs were definitely coming towards me: two roe deer drummed out of the reeds and galloped away over the moor, their white rumps glowing white. I saw, or imagined, a single eye glint between the reeds. I don’t know what had set the deer off but I soon heard the sound of munching, while the snipe continued to ‘drum’ to each other and stars appeared above my head.
Published in the April issue of The Countryman.