May 2021 Birds Need Plants Photo Contest

       A wary and alert Wilson’s Snipe blends in amongst the plants © Andrew Liu 3/16/2021 Green Cay Wetlands

Wilson’s Snipe   Gallinago delicata

by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.

Wilson’s Snipe are so elusive that many practical jokes have been played on youth, leading them to go at night into the wilderness “Snipe Hunting” with instructions to crouch down and hold their bag to catch them as they are flushed their way. Duped again, holding the bag!  Thus, the colloquial term, “Oh, that’s a Snipe Hunt!” means that it is a fruitless direction or mission. Snipe exist! In fact, it’s one of the most abundant shorebirds in North America! They lurk camouflaged amongst the reeds along mud shores.  Excellent birders can also miss them. Yet, when a snipe fears a predator is near, they explode into the air with zigzag flight. Thus challenged, hunters favor hunting them—killing over 100,000 in the U.S. yearly.

Belonging to the family of sandpipers, they similarly have sensory pits near the tip of their unusually long beak. These pits help detect prey as they probe deep, moving their beak up and down in the mud like sewing machine needles.  Their name “snipe” is derived from the Dutch term Snip—meaning movement of long needles in sewing. They thrust their beak into the mud, their tip uniquely openable, allowing them to slurp up snails, worms, and crustacea. It busies itself in search of crustaceans, often probing that so long beak into the mud, even up to its eyes, or deeper.  Its eyes are set unusually back in its head, so that when dipping into the mud, they not only have side views but full vision behind and above allowing them to see any predators.  With its sensitive beak tip, snipe systematically cover the fabric of soil.

With a long lens Andy Liu waited patiently.  Despite being rarely seen, the snipe stepped from behind the curtain of reeds onto the mudflats stage revealing its marvelous costume of white-striped back feather pattern. 

During the twilight hours of the evening and morning a strange drumming, haunting huh-huh-huh-huh sound (called winnowing) was heard by residents.  Only later it was determined that most often on breeding grounds a snipe makes this drumming sound as it rattles its tail feathers together aided by the wind while diving towards the ground.  Sometimes they start drumming to distract a threat.  Such diverse characteristics, so cleverly evolved for its narrow wetland habitat!

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