To photograph a male Great Snipe (Gallinago media) displaying on a lek in the wide-stretched lowlands of northern Middle Europe, was the target. In a project in collaboration with scientists from Estonian University of Life Sciences is was possible to perform this task in one of the remaining habitats which used to be so typical for this species. It occurred until the 19th century in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Finland and the lowlands of Sweden and Norway – sometimes in remarkable abundancy.
Whereas in the western parts of Middle Europe the loss and deterioration of important floodplain meadow and marshland habitat led numbers of Great Snipe decline dramatically, wide river valleys with extensive grassy meadows are still existent in the low-populated Estonia.
As mentioned, the main objective of a trip to Estonia was, to photograph the Great Snipe in its ancestral habitat, the lowlands of Northern Central Europe reaching from the Netherlands to Russia.
The most images from Great Snipes are made a region of Fjell north of Trondheim. There you can – for a substantial fee – use the camouflage tents of a Norwegian ornithologist. But I wanted to photograph the Great Snipe in a habitat so typical for this species. Although there might be the chance to find leks on your own by doing some intensive research with literature and the internet, I tried it the way to contact the relevant organizations and people in Estonia. Doing it this way, should have the least impact in terms of nature conservation.
After a long period of contacts, the project “Photography of the Great Snipe display” was started in cooperation with scientists. For this I arranged the help of Estonian Nature Tours (Kumari Reisid OÜ), whose motto is “Estonian nature can offer a lot. So do our local guides.” Fully true!
The company has excellent contacts with local scientists and birdwatchers who like to share their knowledge of local birds as a guide with other bird lovers. The well-known ornithologist Leho Luigujõe was my guide to contact. He was interested to get some images to document behavioral studies.
In the breeding season, the most fascinating behaviour of Great Snipes can be observed. The Great Snipe is a lekking species, meaning that males gather after sunset at a display ground, or lek, and compete with each other for the attention of females. The competition takes the form of an elaborate display performed on top of a small mound, in which the white feathers of the tail are distinctly advertised. Images in the gallery show the wide spectrum of display performance. Females visit the lek solely for the purpose of mating and select a male based on a number of – obviously – attractive characteristics. Females mate with males in the centre of the lek more than those around the outside, and seem to prefer males with more white on their tails. In addition, males that displayed more intensely obtained more matings – and vocalisations also play an important role.
Like members in the Tetrao-genus (Grouses), in particular the Black grouse (Tetrao tetrix), the polygamous males of the Great Snipe perform their courtship rituals on traditionally used courts. The males mate with more than one female during a reproductive period. That the balancing competition takes place on a small hill or is characterized by low vegetation and clear view, cannot be confirmed for the site visited. Perhaps this is just another feature of the Northern European population, which is mainly photographed in Norway.
The display sites sticked out rather, by their inconspicuousness in the mosaic of the different grass assemblages within the large wet meadow. Viewed with the right eye, however, one recognizes the active display courts by the depressed grass, the stains and “corridors” in the grass, where the males reach the outer areas of their courts and return to the center.
As in other lekking and promiscuous species, the male Great Snipes take no part in parental care following mating. The female is solely responsible for building a nest, incubating the eggs and caring for the young. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground, situated amongst thick vegetation, and lined with moss or grass.
In early August, after the breeding season, Great Snipes leave their European breeding grounds and begin the impressive migration to sub-Saharan Africa. Here they remain until March or April, when they must undertake the great journey again.
The Great Snipes have two separate sub-populations; a western population breeds in the Scandinavian mountains and an eastern population is distributed from Poland, throughout the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus, and west Russia to the Yenisey River in Siberia. It winters in sub-Saharan Africa, stopping at a few sites between its breeding and wintering areas.
Like other species of snipe, the Great Snipe is extensively camouflaged wader. The bird has brown, patterned plumage, with extensive dark barring on the white underside. The feathers at the leading edge of the wing have bold, white tips, and the corners of the tail are also white.
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