Oxhill News

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South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

March 2004


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Nature Notes

March – the month of new life, named after Mars the Roman god of war.  In Anglo-Saxon – Hrethamonarth, the month of the goddess Hretha.

I have recently had two reported sightings of snipe (Gallinago gallinago)  one from the long rough meadow by the clay shoot, and one between Oxhill and Tysoe, and the other morning I heard them.  They will certainly have been attracted by the boggy ground left from all the recent rain.  Their fondness for mud stems from their fondness for worms and insects, which they obtain with their long pliable probing beaks.  It has proportionately the longest beak of any European bird and its eyes are set far back in the head so that it can still see when the beak is plunged full length into the mud.  The name comes from the old English “snite” and means “a long thin object”.  This name is commemorated in the village of Snitterfield , which in the Domesday Book was called “Snitefield” – a field frequented by snipe.  If you put up a group of snipe they explode from the ground, rising in a vertical zig-zag pattern going in all directions – a real treat to watch.  The collective noun for a group on the ground is a “walk” of snipe, and in the air a “wisp” of snipe. 

What I heard (and only for the second time in my life) was snipe “drumming”.  This is a bit of a misnomer as the sound is more of a bleat or rattle, and another old English word for snipe is Haeferblaete or “goat bleater”.  This eerie fluting sound is made with the end wing primary feathers and outer tail feathers as the bird drops in a deep descent from a high rapid flight.  This is courtship behaviour and usually takes place in spring and early summer, although it has been heard throughout the year.  It is one of nature’s strangest sounds and it moves me to wonder if the 17th century Polish Winged Hussars got their idea from the snipe,  They had “wings” of feathers attached to the back plate of their cuirasses (chest and back armour) and when they reached a gallop at the charge the feathers gave out an eerie high-pitched whistle (or bleat) and this supposedly struck fear into the enemy.  I would image several hundred snipe “drumming” would certainly scare a lot of people nowadays.

Over a period of three days last week I saw a now scarce sight, a flock of about 30 lapwings.  These birds of farmland have recently seen a dramatic decline in their numbers, probably due to changes in farming practice.  I remember as a lad seeing vast surging clouds of lapwings and their haunting cry was commonplace.  During the early 1900s they suffered a similar decline, but this was due to the fashion of eating plovers eggs.  In 1921 one Norfolk man collected and sold no less that 1,900 eggs destined for the table.  The lapwing is a wonderful bird to watch, its broad-winged flight being beautifully controlled.  The word lapwing comes from the old English Hleapewince which means “leap with a waver in it” which conveys so well the tremulous power of its flight.  Its distinctive cry has given rise to a number of commonly used names such as Piewipe, Tewit, Tee Whip, Weep and of course Peewit.  Many old folk tales mention the cry of the lapwing, which is a good or bad omen, depending on the demands of the story!

A useful hint from Arbeau-Orchesographic of 1588 for the month of March – “Exercise and divert yourself with dancing.  Dancing or saltation is both a pleasant and a profitable art, which confers and preserves health: it is proper to youth, agreeable to the old, and suitable to all, provided fitness of time and place are observed ….. And it is a useful device for ascertaining whether a person be deformed by the gout  ….. or if they emit an unpleasant odour, as of bad meat.”!!

Grenville Moore

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Last modified: June 04, 2004