128. THE SOLITARY SNIPE.
Gallinago solitaria (HODGSON).
Tip of the first secondary quill reaching closely to the tips of the primary coverts.
Outer web of the first three primaries, and the tips of all the primaries, distinctly margined with white.
Outer tail-feathers narrow and stiff.
VERNACULAR NAMES :—None known.
THE Solitary Snipe inhabits the Himalayas from Kashmir to Assam, being found in summer at elevations ranging from 9000 to about 15,000 feet. In the winter it descends to the valleys, below 6000 feet, and to the plains in the immediate vicinity of these. At this season it has been observed also on the Garo and Khasi hills and at the head of the Assam valley, and a specimen was met with near Benares by Mr. A. Guthrie in September.
Mr. F. W. F. Fletcher, of the Rockwood Estate, Nellakotta, Nilgiris, was fortunate enough to shoot this species recently in Southern India, thus extending its range most unexpectedly. In the Asian of February 8th, 1898, he wrote :—" Some little time back, when shooting near Devala, S.-E. Wynaad, with Mr. W. Hamilton, we bagged a good specimen of the Himalayan Solitary Snipe (Gallinago solitaria). I say 'we' advisedly, as the prize was only discovered amongst our bag after the day's shoot was over, and I do not therefore know to whose gun it fell."
The Solitary Snipe, which has been divided into several subspecies without any good grounds, occurs in Eastern Siberia, Japan, China, and a considerable portion of Central Asia, as far as Western Turkestan. It appears to be chiefly a vertical migrant, changing elevation according to season and making short excursions into the neighbouring plains. It breeds in the mountains of Western China, and there is no reason why this species should not be found commonly in parts of Upper Burma and the Shan States.
Dr. Scully says:—" The Solitary Snipe is not uncommon in the valley of Nepal from October to the beginning of March, being represented in larger numbers than either the Woodcock or Wood Snipe. It is found at the foot of the hills all round the valley, on sloping grass-covered ground, in the nullahs or small streamlets running down from the hills. It is as often found in pairs as singly, and does not seem ever to seek the shelter of bushes or forests. Its flight is slower and heavier than that of either the Pintail or Common Snipe."
Except the above, little has been written about the habits of the Solitary Snipe, since the issue of Messrs. Hume and Marshall's "Game Birds." I therefore shall quote largely from this excellent work. Mr. Hume, relating his experiences, writes:—''They do not seem to care much for cover. I have constantly seen them along the margins of little streams, in bare rocky ravines and valleys, where there were only small corners and nooks of turf and mossy swamp, and no cover a foot high. I have no doubt found them in small open swamps in the middle of jungle, but they stick to the grass and low rushes, and I never myself observed them in scrub or ringal jungle. I have known Wood-Snipe and the Eastern Solitary Snipe flushed within a short distance of each other; but, as a rule, the Wood-Snipe is to be seen only in tiny swamps or morasses, partly or wholly surrounded by thick cover—the Solitary Snipe in little swampy places on open grassy hill sides, or along the margins of rocky-bedded, bare-banked streams.
" The Solitary Snipe has a much higher range in summer, and does not go nearly so far south in winter.* In the Himalayas at all seasons it is at least ten times as numerous as the Wood-Snipe. It is just as commonly met with in twos and threes as singly, whereas (in the hills at any rate) the Wood-Snipe is always solitary.
"The flight of the Wood-Snipe, and the shape of its bill, are ' wood-cocky,' of the Solitary Snipe, both are 'snipey.'
" The latter rises, flies, twists, and pitches precisely like a Pintail Snipe, but is somewhat less rapid and agile in all its move-movements than this, and a fortiori than the Common Snipe.
" The Wood-Snipe, so far as my experience goes, rises invariably silently; the Solitary Snipe goes off with a loud ' pwich' a harsh screeching imitation of the note of the Common Snipe.
" They feed, to judge from those I have examined, chiefly on small insects and tiny grubs. I have found a mass of minute black coleoptera in the stomachs of two or three ; of one I find noted ' minute shells ' There is always a quantity of gravel or coarse sand in the gizzard.
"They are excellent eating, but not I think quite equal to any of the other Snipes, the best of which are certainly the Jacks. There is not much on these latter, but what there is, is delicious.
" The breeding season commences in May, when the males are to be often heard and seen in the higher portions of the hills, soaring to a considerable height, repeatedly uttering a loud, sharp, jerky call, and then descending rapidly with quivering wings and outspread tail, producing a harsh buzzing sound something like, but shriller and louder than, that produced by the Common Snipe, and this though they do not descend as rapidly as this latter."
In treating of the Wood-Snipe, I have explained what seems to me to have been a mistake made in the identification of the eggs of a Snipe taken by Mandelli's men in Native Sikhim in June. These eggs are referred to the Wood-Snipe by Mr. Hume in the note he gave me for the second edition of the "Nests and Eggs," and also in the " Game Birds "; but one of the three eggs in the Hume Collection is marked as being that of the Solitary Snipe, and all three eggs agree exactly with five other eggs of the latter species, taken by Mr. A. E. Pratt in the pine-forests above Ta-chien-lu in Western Sze-chuen.
The eggs of this Snipe are very distinct from the eggs of the other Snipes, so far as they are known to me. The ground¬colour is pinkish buff. The surface-markings consist of very large blotches and some small spots and specks of rich reddish or chocolate-brown. These are most frequent on the larger half of the egg, where they are often confluent and form a large cap. The underlying blotches and spots are dull purple. The eggs are much pointed at one end and rounded at the other, and have little or no gloss. They measure from 1.7 to 1.8 in length and from 1.25 to 1.3 in breadth.
The Solitary Snipe has the upper plumage delicately marked and cross-barred throughout, the pale markings being white or nearly so; and there are none of the large black patches on the back and scapulars which characterise the Wood-Snipe.
The forehead and crown are dark brown, mottled with rufous, and with an interrupted whitish band down the middle of the latter. There is a broad brown band connecting the eye and the bill, and above this, on either side of the forehead, a whitish band running from the upper mandible backwards to the eye. The whole upper plumage, and the lesser and median upper wing-coverts are very beautifully barred with black or brown, chestnut, and whitish, the scapulars having a broad whitish margin to the outer web. The upper tail-coverts are rufous grey, the tip of the longer feathers cross-barred. The middle eight tail-feathers are black, terminated with chestnut, a wavy black bar, and a whitish tip. The remaining narrower feathers are white, with broad black bars. The greater upper wing-coverts are brown, margined with white at the tip. The primaries and the outer secondaries are dark brown, conspicuously margined with white at the tip; the first three primaries with the margin of the outer web also white. The inner secondaries are richly barred with black and chestnut, and notched with white on the outer web. The chin is white. The sides of the head and the throat are white, streaked with brown. The foreneck and chest are wood-brown, the feathers edged with white. The remainder of the under surface is white, barred with brown on the sides of the body and breast. The abdomen is white, and the under tail-coverts only slightly barred. The axillaries are diagonally barred with white and dark brown. The under wing-coverts are regularly and very distinctly barred with dark brown and white.
In young birds, the outer secondaries are freckled with rufous near the tip, the frecklings sometimes extending to the inner primaries. The outer web of the first primary is more or less freckled between the web and the white margin.
The sexes are of much the same size. Length about 12 1/2; wing about 6 1/4; tail 2 1/2; bill about 2 1/2. The bill is yellowish brown, with the terminal third black; the irides are dark brown; the legs and feet are olive or greenish. Weight up to 8 oz. The number of tail-feathers varies considerably, and is said to be as many as twenty-eight in some birds. Usually the tail-feathers are eighteen in number; the eight in the middle being broad, soft, and of the usual character; the lateral ones narrow, short and stiff, the outermost feather being about one-tenth of an inch in breadth.
* This statement is now, however, hardly accurate. Both species occur in Southern India.