by William McReynolds | Wilson’s Snipe photo by Ed Boos
This bird is sufficiently rarely sighted for a “snipe hunt” to be synonymous with a boondoggle joke played upon the uninitiated and naïve. There are millions of Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) in North America, but they are usually so well-camouflaged and secretive that they often go unseen. It’s remarkable, then, that one was sighted recently on the Highlands Plateau during the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
Snipes are members of the sandpiper family, cousins to the Woodcock. It is a plump, robin-sized shorebird whose habitat includes inland mud bogs, pond edges, and flooded fields. A migratory bird, its breeding grounds are in Canada, and it winters in the US, Mexico, the Caribbean, and northern South America.
Snipe sleep during the day and feed at dawn and dusk. Their diet consists of insect larvae, earthworms, flies, beetles, grasshoppers, and the occasional lizard or frog. It feeds beneath the soil line with a highly specialized, elongated bill that can probe the wet soil and slurp up small prey while remaining closed and submerged. The Wilson’s Snipe has eyes placed near the back of its round head, enabling it to see behind itself while feeding.
This is an evasive gamebird, hunted for its meaty breast. With its large breast muscles, it can reach flight speeds of 60 mph. When roused from its hidden ground perch, it reaches great heights taking a rapid zigzag flight pattern that makes it difficult to shoot. Sharpshooters in 19th Century British India who hunted snipe were called “snipers,” a term that has endured in the English language.
The male of the species courts the female with dizzying high flight and “winnowing” or emitting a whistling hu-hu-hu sound resulting from air passing over its unique tail feathers. The female tends the nest, usually four eggs. Upon fledging, the male takes the older fledges “under his wing” while the female looks after the younger fledges. Snipe protect their nest from invaders by feigning injury.
Happy snipe hunting from the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society.
The mission of the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society is to provide opportunities to enjoy and learn about birds and other wildlife and to promote conservation and restoration of the habitats that support them. HPAS is a 501(c)(3) organization, a Chapter of the National Audubon Society. Visit highlandsaudubonsociety.org for information on membership and all activities.