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Published: 28 November 2020

By Andy Ross

An update on Flight

Flight has been a way to cope with the pandemic disruption. 

At the start of the pandemic lockdowns I began to write about birds and their migrations. It seemed an apt metaphor for the way in which life had become disrupted and changed, and the project, for a project it quickly became, continues to grow. This week I wrote about Snipe, those beautiful little birds with softly-edged-with-white-and-gold brown feathers. 

The Snipe – Keeper of Rhythm

 

One sign that Spring is well and truly lightening the North is the sky-drum of the snipe. Small and inconspicuous on the ground, blending in with the grass and peat, snipe own the air as they fly high above the Shetland peat moors.

 

Their flight appears laborious at first; they haul themselves high on fluttering wings.  Then they dive sharply with purpose and resolve. It is this descent that creates a snipe’s unique sound. As the bird plunges, its tail feathers vibrate to make a fluting pulse. It serves as a warning, a call to arms in defence of territory, and to alert possible mates to health, vitality and vigour. Long a disagreement was the cause of this distinctive sound. Two feathers, tied to a cork with string and whirled overhead by a zoologist in the incongruous, yet oddly appropriate surroundings of a London Italian restaurant, finally settled the matter once and for all in 1931.

 

In the islands, snipe are known as horsegok, a possible reference to its neigh-like sound. In other parts of the world, the bird is referred to as a goat or sheep because the sound recalls their bleating. This sky-bound counterpoint to the land-bound is apposite for snipe are traditionally hunted as a tasty morsel.

 

It is difficult to spot a flying snipe for they climb far above the ground in a search for the best possible spot from which to begin, and their flight path is wide, circling in an arc, puncturing the Shetland peace with drumming. With bewildering speed the sound seems to move around the skies, directionless. It is hard to poinpoint where it comes from. Snipe fly so high that they are but small dots in a limpid-blue summer sky. 

 

A snipe’s call is the clarion to summer. A hint of what is to come in the Spring, and the faintest memory of what has been when it falls silent at the ending of the light. Then the little brown bird busies itself in the heather and peat, hunting. There is no time for joy; time is essence-full as darkness pulls its shawl of red across the hills in Yell. But the light days will return and, as constant as the earth circles its sun, so the snipe will circle Shetland skies, joyously thrumming a pean to life.