Latham’s snipe Gallinago hardwickii is a medium sized wader, with a length of ~30 cm, a wingspan of ~52 cm and a mass of between 150 and 200g. The sexes are generally similar in appearance, although females are slightly larger, and juveniles are almost identical to adults. Birds have cryptic plumage and are most commonly seen when they flushed from cover and flee with a distinctive and rapid ‘zig-zagging’ flight. In Australia, Latham’s snipe occur in permanent and ephemeral freshwater or brackish wetlands with low vegetation (e.g. swamps, flooded grasslands and around other water bodies). They are also tolerant of disturbance, and can be found in human-modified landscapes and in habitats located close to humans or human activity. They roost in grass around the margins of wetlands during the day, and forage for a range of invertebrates in soft mud around the margins of wetlands and in damp soil of grasslands at night. Latham’s snipe usually occur singly or in small groups, although under ideal conditions there can be up to 400+ in a single wetland.
Latham’s Snipe breed in Japan and adjacent areas of Russia, and migrate south for the non-breeding period. A large part of this project focuses on the species’ migration, and is dealt with separately here.
Three snipe species occur in Australia: Latham’s snipe G. hardwickii, Pin-tailed snipe G. stenura and Swinhoe’s snipe G. megala. These three species form a group in which positive identification in the field is difficult (to say the least!) and usually requires in hand examination of wing length and tail structure. Fortunately for the Latham’s Snipe Project, field work is being undertaken in and around the Port Fairy region in south-west Victoria, where only Latham’s Snipe has been recorded. However, for observations of snipe in other parts of Australia, particularly northern Australia, there are a number of differences which are worth noting when observing birds in the field. Firstly, Latham’s Snipe is the largest of the three species, although this requires the observer to have their “eye in” for all three species. The tail is the area of focus for a positive ID, especially the degree in which the tail extends beyond the primary and tertial feathers. In both Latham’s and Swinhoe’s the tail does extend beyond the primaries and tertials, but in the Pin-tailed Snipe the three are about equal in length. This gives the Pin-tailed Snipe a rather square rear end and a somewhat stumpy look overall, compared to the elongated tail of the other two species. For final distinction between Latham’s and Swinhoe’s the extension of the primaries beyond the tertials must be observed (again, easier said than done!). In Latham’s Snipe the primaries and tertials are about equal whereas in Swinhoe’s the primaries extend well beyond the tertials.
Header image of a Latham’s Snipe at Port Fairy courtesy of Peter Grenfell