The birding bush telegraph rang hot late last month. A Japanese snipe – a bird I had never seen – had been spotted over several days at the Goulds Lagoon reserve along the upper Derwent.
I received the word while attending a BirdLIfe Tasmania meeting and at first light next morning I jumped into my car to speed along the Brooker Highway to Austins Ferry, where the reserve is situated.
It was a glorious autumnal day, the early-morning sun burning off a crispness in the air, and the portents were good for a sighting of this rare and elusive wader which, as its name suggests, makes the long and arduous return journey each year between Australia and its breeding grounds in Japan.
Snipes usually prefer freshwater wetlands – they are often seen in wet, boggy areas of the Tasmanian high country – and I surmised this bird was merely making a brief stopover at Goulds Lagoon at the start of its flight to the northern hemisphere. So I thought I better be quick if I was to spot the bird.
I’d been given an exact location within the reserve, a spread of open mud and scattered marshland in the south-eastern corner which in previous years had yielded another rare waterbird, a Baillion’s crake, and a more common, yet elusive, spotted crake.
Crakes, though, were not on my radar. My sights were set on the Japanese snipe, also called Latham’s snipe.
I didn’t have to swat up on the bird’s description and field marks as with some other rarities. Snipes – about the size of a brush wattlebird – are easily identified by their long bills and their upright stance. They are superbly camouflaged to merge and blend with reed and long grass at the water’s edge. Usually they use their camouflage to remain hidden when approached but if the observer strays too close they burst into a rapid, zig-zag flight before dropping back into cover.
My experience of watching other species of snipe in Europe and North America has taught me to approach snipe territory carefully, for fear of putting up the birds, but a birder who had seen the snipe at Goulds Lagoon said the reed beds surrounded to open water and mudflats gave the bird the security it needed.
Although Goulds Lagoon often yields interesting and rare birds, especially ducks, I am not a fan of the reserve because it is largely surrounded by suburbia.
As I sat at the site where the snipe had been spotted I could see drink bottles lying on the mud, and there was an annoying buzz from an electricity sub-station just behind my back.
I did not let all this blunt my enthusiasm for the snipe hunt, though. I scanned the reeds for an hour, even walking few hundred metres around the lagoon’s shore, but was to be unsuccessful. I didn’t even find a small flock of rare freckled ducks which have made the reserve their home in recent years.
I returned a few days later but the snipe had clearly departed. It was the one that got away.