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The Elusive Subantarctic Snipe: Unlocking Its Unique Behaviors and Survival Strategies

The Subantarctic Snipe, also known as the Coenocorypha aucklandica, is a small bird species that can be found in Zealandia and other subantarctic islands. This species is not commonly seen, but its unique features make it stand out from other bird species.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the identification, plumages, and molts of the Subantarctic Snipe.


Field Identification

The Subantarctic Snipe can be identified by its small size, measuring up to 7-9 inches, and its distinctive bill that is slightly curved downwards. It has a cryptic plumage that features various shades of brown, which provides excellent camouflage in its habitat.

This species can be found mostly on the ground, lurking around the grass or wet leaflitter of the forest floor. They have large, bright yellow eyes, and their wings are relatively short.

Their tail feathers are longer than their wings.

Similar Species

The Subantarctic Snipe can be easily confused with other similar bird species, such as the New Zealand Snipe. The difference between these two species lies in the color of the bill.

The Subantarctic Snipe has a black bill that is slightly curved downwards, while the New Zealand Snipe has a straight bill that is gray in color. Overall, their plumage is not as cryptic as the Subantarctic Snipe’s, making them easier to spot in their habitat.


The Subantarctic Snipe has two main plumages, which are the breeding and non-breeding plumages. During breeding season, this species has a more vibrant plumage, featuring more vibrant shades of brown and a more contrasted pattern, which helps to attract mates.

Outside of the breeding season, the Subantarctic Snipe’s plumage becomes less vibrant and cryptic, which provides better camouflage in its respective habitat. This change in plumage is known as molting.


Like any bird species, the Subantarctic Snipe undergoes molts, where they shed their old feathers and grow new ones. This process usually happens gradually, and the age and sex of the bird may affect the timing of the molting process.

The Subantarctic Snipe molts its feathers once a year and maintains its plumage throughout this process.


The Subantarctic Snipe is a unique and valuable bird species, which is essential to maintain the ecological balance of its habitat. Their subtlety and cryptic plumage may make them difficult to spot, but their distinctive bill and bright yellow eyes provide excellent identification markers.

Knowing more about their identification, plumages, and molts can help us better understand this species and the role they play in their respective ecosystem.

Systematics History

The Subantarctic Snipe, also known as the Coenocorypha aucklandica, is a bird species that belongs to the family of snipes (Scolopacidae) and the order of Charadriiformes. It was first described by G.R. Gray in 1845, based on specimens that were collected during James Ross’s 1839-43 Antarctica expedition.

Over the years, several taxonomic revisions have been made to the species, and it is currently classified into several subspecies based on geographic variation.

Geographic Variation

The Subantarctic Snipe is found on several subantarctic islands, including Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty Islands. These islands are characterized by a cold, wet climate, and are situated in the Southern Ocean, south of New Zealand.

Due to the isolation of these islands and the unique habitat conditions, the Subantarctic Snipe has experienced geographical variation over its range.


The Subantarctic Snipe has several subspecies that are recognized based on differences in geographic location and morphological characteristics. The following are the currently recognized subspecies of the Subantarctic Snipe:


C. a.

aucklandica This subspecies is found on Auckland Islands and is characterized by its larger size and darker plumage. 2.

C. a.

perseverance This subspecies is found on Campbell Island and has paler plumage compared to C. a.

aucklandica. It is also smaller in size.

3. C.

a. meinertzhagenae This subspecies is found on Antipodes Islands and is characterized by dark, chestnut-colored upperparts and white underparts.

4. C.

a. cheesemanii This subspecies is found on Bounty Islands and has a smaller size and paler plumage compared to C.

a. aucklandica.

Related Species

The Subantarctic Snipe belongs to the family of snipes (Scolopacidae), which is a large family of wading birds that are found worldwide. Within this family, the Subantarctic Snipe is closely related to other snipe species, such as the New Zealand Snipe (C.

huegeli), which is found on the Chatham Islands and was once thought to be conspecific with the Subantarctic Snipe. However, they differ in their morphology, vocalizations, and genetic makeup.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Subantarctic Snipe’s distribution has changed over time due to several factors, including human impact and natural events. During the 19th century, there was extensive exploitation of subantarctic islands for seal and whale hunting, which led to the introduction of non-native species and habitat loss.

This resulted in a decline in the Subantarctic Snipe population. Conservation measures were later put in place to protect the species, and its population has since stabilized.

In addition, natural events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and sea level changes have also affected the Subantarctic Snipe’s distribution. For example, volcanic eruptions on Antipodes Islands in the 19th century caused habitat destruction, which affected the Subantarctic Snipe population on the island.

Sea level changes have also affected the Subantarctic Snipe’s distribution, causing island connectivity to change and leading to isolation of populations.


The Subantarctic Snipe is a unique species that has experienced geographical variation and changes in distribution over time. Its unique morphology, vocalizations, and genetic makeup have helped to distinguish it from other snipe species.

However, human impact and natural events have affected this species’ population and distribution, highlighting the need for conservation efforts to ensure its survival.


The Subantarctic Snipe is a ground-dwelling bird species that is found in subantarctic forest and shrubland habitats. It is particularly common in damp areas with tussock grasses, sedges, and ferns on the ground cover.

The species prefers areas with dense vegetation where it forages for food such as invertebrates like insects, spiders, and centipedes. A major factor in their habitat selection is the soil moisture level.

The species needs the soil to be damp, but not waterlogged, in order for the invertebrates to come closer to the surface and be more accessible to the bird.

Movements and Migration

The Subantarctic Snipe is considered non-migratory as the species breeds and spends its entire life on its respective island. Although there is little information about their movements, studies have shown that they have a low dispersal rate.

This is likely due to the island habitats where they live, as there are no connecting landmasses and thus no opportunities for migrating. Despite being non-migratory, the species does move within their respective islands in response to changes in resource availability and habitat quality over time.

They move short distances within their territories and to new territories when necessary, and their annual movements are restricted to their breeding territories. Male Subantarctic Snipes are known to defend territories all year round and use it each year for breeding.

During breeding season, the species becomes more territorial and may defend their chosen breeding area from conspecifics and other bird species. These territories will be rich in resources which will later be used to raise chicks.

Once breeding season is over, Subantarctic Snipes retreat to damp areas under the forest cover or adjacent grass cover that are less visible to predators to graze and grow their feathers. The lack of long-distance migration pathways and their isolation from other bird populations makes them particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction and changes in resource availability.

The species is prone to disturbance by boats and visitors to their islands, especially during breeding season which can affect their reproductive success. Changes in habitat quality due to human activities such as pollution can also drive the birds away from their preferred nesting and foraging areas.


The Subantarctic Snipe is a non-migratory species of bird that is found in subantarctic islands across the globe. The species is adapted to living in damp, dense vegetation where its preferred food sources can be found.

It is an important part of the ecosystem where it resides and has been shown to be particularly sensitive to habitat destruction and pollution, underlining the importance of conservation efforts to protect this species. Although understanding of their movements is limited, it is important to recognize that their isolated habitats expose them to unique ecological challenges that should be considered in conservation efforts.

Diet and Foraging


The Subantarctic Snipe is a solitary ground-dwelling bird species that forages for food during the daylight hours. Its unique bill shape and flexible tip allow it to probe moist soil and leaf litter, digging for small invertebrates like insects, spiders, and centipedes hidden among the vegetation.

The species is often observed flicking leaves with its bill to reveal invertebrates beneath them, searching around the base of trees and in dense shrubs for prey, and tapping into the soil with their bills to extract food items. They are also known to feed on small mollusks and possibly small amphibians.


The Subantarctic Snipe has a diet that consists predominantly of invertebrates. However, it is known to be an opportunistic feeder and will consume other types of food when available.

For example, during the fall and winter seasons, they may consume berries and other plant materials if invertebrates are scarce. The species uses its bill to pry open some tough-skinned fruits and berries, making it easier to consume the pulp inside.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Subantarctic Snipe has the ability to regulate its body temperature in cold environments due to its relatively high metabolic rate. A high metabolic rate allows the bird to maintain a constant body temperature despite external temperature changes.

Additionally, the bird’s metabolism provides energy for sustained activity during daily foraging. The species has also been observed to sit in shallow water, likely a method to regulate its body temperature.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The Subantarctic Snipe is not known for its song-like vocalization and instead relies on a variety of other sounds to communicate with other individuals. They are usually silent but make a series of territorial and courtship displays before breeding season with each display preceded by high-pitched squeaking calls.

During the courtship display, males can be observed flying high and steeply before landing in a specific tree or branch where they will continue calling. After establishing a territory, the bird will sit on a perch giving a single, loud “eep” note that is solitary in nature and resembles a car engine starting.

They repeat this call about once a second to establish and defend their territories. The birds use the calls for territorial defense, maintaining their territories throughout the year.


The Subantarctic Snipe is a well-adapted ground-dwelling bird species that relies on its bill to dig for invertebrates and other food sources. Their diet is influenced by the availability of resources in their immediate environment.

The high metabolic rate allows the species to remain active throughout the day in cold environments, and their vocalizations help to establish and maintain territories. The intricate use of vocalizations between Subantarctic Snipe in courtship and territorial defense offers further insight into their evolutionary behavior.

Nevertheless, more research is necessary to fully understand the biological and ecological behaviors of this species to assist future conservation efforts.



The Subantarctic Snipe is a ground-dwelling bird species that spends much of its life on the forest floor and surrounding vegetation. It does not fly long distances, preferring to move short distances on foot.

The species uses a slow, creeping gait to move through the dense vegetation, and its cryptic plumage helps it to blend in with its surroundings.

Self Maintenance

The Subantarctic Snipe is a clean bird that grooms itself regularly. It holds one wing over its body while preening the other wing and then switches sides.

When it is not preening, it can be observed in a ruffed-up posture, which helps to insulate the bird.

Agonistic Behavior

Male Subantarctic Snipes are known to be territorial and can display aggressive behavior towards conspecifics during breeding season. They will defend their territories from other males using various displays, which include spreading of their wings, fanning of their tail feathers and calling.

These displays demonstrate their potency and help to deter other males from intruding on their territory. In cases where two males are unable to resolve their conflict, physical fights may occur.

Sexual Behavior

Mating with the Subantarctic Snipe occurs in spring to summer and is characterized by courtship displays. Males will perform courtship displays associated with singing and wing-flashing, with additional scuffles being strong indicators for mating opportunities.

Once paired, Males can be observed feeding their partners and young, as well as aggressively defending their territories from intruders.


The Subantarctic Snipe is a monogamous bird species, and pairs regularly remain together year after year.

Breeding season takes place from October to December.

During this season, males establish territories that they vigorously defend, and females lay 2-3 eggs in a nest. Nest construction typically occurs in dense undergrowth amid tussock grasses or ferns concealed by substrates similar in color to their plumage.

After hatching, the chicks remain within the nest for 10-13 days before venturing out. They are cared for by both parents, who are known to gape feed them regurgitated food.

The chicks become independent at roughly thirty days of age. The dense forest and undergrowth make the species difficult to study and little is known about breeding and parental behaviors outside of this period.

Demography and Populations

The Subantarctic Snipe is considered to be rare across its range, due to the limited extent of this range as a result of their island isolation. The populations on Auckland, Campbell, and Antipodes have been classified under Least Concern, while the population on Bounty Island is classified under the category of Endangered.

Threats to the Subantarctic Snipe include human activities, such as introduced predators and habitat destruction. Introduced species, such as mice, rats, and feral cats, are known to prey on the subspecies chicks and eggs.

Conservation efforts have been established to mitigate the impact of these threats, including predator control and restriction of human activities in areas where the species resides. In conclusion, the Subantarctic Snipe is a unique bird species that is well-adapted to its subantarctic island habitats.

This ground-dwelling bird species has a cryptic plumage, which provides excellent camouflage in their environment, and has a specialized bill used for foraging. The species displays unique behavior such as its locomotive patterns, self-maintenance, agonistic and sexual behavior during breeding, and territorial behavior for maintaining territories.

Due to its limited range and isolation, the bird species is vulnerable to the impact of human activities and changes in habitat availability. Conservation measures such as predator control and restricted human activities can help mitigate these threats to the species’ survival.

Overall, the study of the species provides valuable insights into the ecology and behavior of ground-dwelling bird species, highlighting the importance of biological research for conservation efforts.

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