By Jeannie Marcure
Because they’ve only heard about it as the object of a practical joke involving a “snipe hunt,” many non-birders think that the snipe is a mythical bird. This rather common prank involves taking a tenderfoot into the woods at night, arming them with a flashlight and a gunny sack and sending them out to “hunt snipe!” Such hunters are usually encouraged to make strange noises and wander aimlessly through woods or marshes in the effort to bag this elusive bird. The snipe was probably chosen as the object of this prank because of its elusive nature and of course, such a hunt is doomed to be unsuccessful allowing much teasing and ridicule of the hunter when he or she finally admits defeat!
I have to confess that although I was never persuaded to go on a snipe hunt, I was surprised, as a beginning birder, to find out that snipes do actually exist. Now a couple of decades later, I find it hard to imagine a spring without the sound of a snipe “winnowing” over a wet area or the sight of a snipe standing on a fencepost making its distinctive “kit kit kit” call. If you’re not familiar with these sounds or just want a little touch of spring, listen to them at:http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wilsons_snipe/id/ac.
Wilson’s Snipe was recently recognized as a species separate from the Common Snipe of Europe and Asia. Although the two species are quite similar, the white edge on the wing is narrower on the Wilson’s and it also typically has 16 tail feathers rather than the 14 found on the Common. However, it needs to be noted that these numbers vary and the Common Snipe may have from 12 to 18 tail feathers. If observed in flight, the Wilson’s Snipe has a dark under-wing and a white belly, while the Common Snipe has distinctive white bars on the under-wing.
Wilson’s Snipe is found throughout North America in its preferred habitat of flooded fields, lakes, rivers and marshes, and can be quite hard to spot, except during the spring mating season when their distinctive sounds will alert you to their presence. The “winnowing” sound is not a call but is rather made by the wind rushing through the tail feathers of the male as he defends his territory and attracts mates with spectacular aerial dives. The “kit kit kit” call is made when the snipe is on the ground—atop a fence post near a nest site or slinking through a wet area, almost invisible as it blends perfectly with its habitat.
At 10.5 inches, the snipe is a rather stocky shorebird with an unmistakable long bill. This bill is used to probe in mud and water for their favorite meals of insects, worms, and crustaceans along with some vegetation and seeds. According to Cornell Lab, the snipe’s bill is flexible and the tips can be opened and closed with no movements at the base of the bill. Also, the tip of the bill has sensory pits which allow the snipe to feel its prey deep in the mud. Dark brown overall, with cream colored stripes on the back, the snipe has a distinctive brown eye stripe and barred flanks. The eye is set rather far back on the head, which I think gives it a rather inquisitive look. Similar species are the Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitcher, but both lack the back striping of the snipe and in breeding plumage are more reddish in appearance. Dowitchers are typically present in our area only during migration, while snipes commonly nest here.
After a spring courtship during which the male performs amazing aerial displays of dives accompanied by the distinctive “winnowing” sound, a cup shaped nest of woven grasses is built on the ground, usually close to or surrounded by water. According to Cornell, the clutch size is almost always 4 eggs, which the female incubates for approximately 20 days. During this time, it’s common to see the male standing guard on a nearby fence post, alerting the female to any dangers with his “kit kit kit” call. Within hours of hatching, the precocial chicks are out of the nest and foraging for food. It is thought that the male takes the first two chicks to hatch and cares for them, while the female takes the last two. Apparently, the parents have no contact after that. The chicks fledge in about 20 days.
Most snipes in our area are migratory and should start arriving and claiming nesting sites in late April or early May. If you want to observe these fascinating birds this spring, learn to recognize their sounds and head to your favorite wetland. My favorite place to see and photograph snipes on posts and also in aerial displays is the Ninepipes area. Stop by any of the small wet areas or flooded fields and listen for the distinctive sounds. If you hear the call of the snipe, look closely at the nearby posts. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to spot a snipe guarding a nest! Enjoy your “snipe hunt!” I hope you get a great picture!