This spring I’ve been hearing Snipe ‘drumming’ for the first time. About a fortnight ago we were leaving a friend’s house when I noticed a strange repeated rising ‘call’. The sound was reaching us across dark misty fields, so felt peculiarly haunting. I recognised it immediately because I’d been listening to recordings of their drumming earlier that day, and wondering why, given that I see Snipe from time to time on the moors round here, I hadn’t yet heard their spring performance. A few days later I heard another Snipe giving a brief rendition at noon, but they mostly do their drumming at dawn and dusk, so I suppose I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time.
Feeling that ‘drumming’ was inadequate as a description of what we’d heard, I did some rummaging and found that the display is also referred to as winnowing. After they’ve paired up the males fly around, swoop down at speed, then turn upwards, creating the effect with their tail feathers. In one of his poems Seamus Heaney refers to an Irish name for the male snipe: Gabhairín Reo, little goat of the frost. I can see why the sound of the bird has been compared to the bleating of goats. As ever though, human words seem hopelessly inadequate to the task of evoking the songs and sounds of birds. Sadly, the term ‘sniper’ was coined by British troops in India in the early nineteenth century to refer to a marksman who was good enough to shoot snipe.(1) Hopefully we are more inclined to respect and cherish this beautiful bird now?
We greatly enjoyed another enigmatic spring performance this weekend when we finally managed to get over to Bacup to see the incomparable Britannia Coconut Dancers on their home turf. There’s something very special about following a procession of dancers through the streets of a town to the resonant accompaniment of a silver band.
The Coconutters exude a wonderful combination of gentle warmth, fun, mystery, and seriousness about their tradition. Many onlookers respond with obvious joy. The young girl in the picture above had been striding along beside the band, then noticed the nutters doing their crouching move and copied them gleefully.
There’s a strong sense, in good way, that this tradition belongs to the town. Bacup has been left in a state of post-industrial decline for far too long, so the nutters make a much needed contribution to community spirit. Speaking for ourselves, we came away feeling a lot brighter too.
The brief clip below, taken from a BBC4 film made by Rachel and Betty Unthank a few years ago, shows one of the dancers talking about the history of their dances.
see also: Coconutters history.
B.T.17th April 2017.
(1) Susanna Linstrom, Nature, Environment and Poetry; Ecocriticism and the Poetics of Seamus Heaney, p89.