Ever been on a snipe hunt, that practical joke that has been played on naive summer campers for ages? Most participants end up assuming a snipe is a totally fictitious creature. Wrong! Snipes are medium-sized, chunky upland shorebirds.
For a long while I have been on a snipe hunt myself. Snipe are relatively solitary, secretive birds that inhabit freshwater marshes, swamps and stream edges as well as wet meadows and forest openings. They spend their time probing for insects, worms and other animals that burrow in the soil or mud. Well camouflaged, snipe are almost impossible to see until flushed. So although Leonard and I frequently hear snipe and often flush them, a photo has eluded me.
A few days ago as we were driving along County Road 91 in Modoc County near the “Gerig Swamp”, Leonard and I saw a snipe sitting on a fencepost. Wow! A quick U-turn and I was able to get a picture before the snipe flew away.
The Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata) is a migratory bird that summers in Canada and Northern United States and spend winters in Central America, Northern South America and much of the Southern United States. Only recently was the Wilson’s snipe separated from the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) of Eurasia.
Wilson’s snipe has brown and black mottled upper parts and white underparts. The back and head are distinctively striped with buff. The throat is mottled. The snipe’s very long, straight bill is flexible with sensory “organs” at the tip that allow the snipe to locate its prey. Interestingly the bill tip can open and close without the base of the bill moving. The eyes are brown and the short legs of a snipe are a greenish yellow. Unless it moves or makes a sound, a snipe is almost impossible to see.
During courtship snipe also make a very interesting sound that to me sounds like a ghost. Sometimes in the dusk it can seem almost eerie. This “winnowing” noise is caused by the vibrating of the outer tail feathers when a snipe dives from height. Their regular vocal calls and songs are interesting, but much less dramatic.
Wilson’s snipe also have an unusual child-rearing habit. The female almost always lays four eggs in a nest on the ground. Chicks can leave the nest very shortly after hatching. Once the first two chicks hatch the male takes them away and cares for them leaving the female to raise the second two babies. The family never reunites after the male and first chicks leave the nest.
It is legal to hunt Wilson’s snipe during season, however, because of their secretive nature not many are taken. Snipe numbers are declining but not rapidly enough to cause concern.
Because of its elusive nature, the snipe gave its name to the word “sniper”.
Finally my snipe hunt is over!