A few weeks ago on his early morning drive to work, Dan spotted an unusual ‘snipe’ wading through a drain in a cane field, right by the highway. He stopped to double check, and called an emergency ID confirmation from a fellow birder – Marj. Latham’s snipe – Tick.
The cryptic Latham’s snipe (Gallinago hardwickii) can be very difficult to distinguish from other Gallinago species such as the Pin-tailed (G. stenura) and Swinhoe’s (G. megala) snipes. It is rarely spotted around this region; in fact, the last official sighting was reported in November 2008.
Latham’s snipe is Australia’s largest snipe, measuring around 29–33 cm long, with a wingspan of 50–54 cm and weight of 150–230g. At such a tiny weight, it is impressive that they are capable of such immense migrations. Entire populations migrate from Asia to eastern Australia during their non-breeding season; with the first sightings in northern QLD in late July and September – so this little guy was right on time. The birds slowly migrate southwards, making the most of the warm weather and rich food supply, wading around shallow, muddy wetlands and coastal margins along the way.
They usually return to northern Australia in March, and make their way out of the country by April once the weather cools. Snipes have been recorded en route in Taiwan, the Philippines, New Guinea and even New Zealand. Latham’s snipe breeds in a restricted region, relative to other snipe species, on the Japanese Islands of Hokkaido and Honshu, and in some regions of eastern Russia. Here, they are affectionately known as thunderbirds due to a loud drumming noise made by their outer tail feathers during spectacular breeding displays.
Latham’s Snipe used to be a popular game hunting species in Australia, as recently as the 1980s. Once they were awarded protection from hunters, populations in most states made a strong recovery. However, Victoria and South Australian populations are, somewhat controversially, considered vulnerable as the toll from hunting and extensive habitat loss impact on the species.
For us, this sighting of Latham’s snipe seemed to signal the arrival of the seasonal birds which have all shown up in our backyard in the past few weeks: the Koel, the Channel-Billed Cuckoo, and Pied Imperial Pigeons. Surely the wet season isn’t far off…