Have You Ever Heard of a Snipe Hunt?

by Larry on November 27, 2010

Wilson’s Snipe Sitting On A Post photos by Larry Jordan

According to Wikipedia, a snipe hunt is “a form of wild-goose chase that is also known as a fool’s errand, a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous  newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The origin of the term is a practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about a bird or animal called the snipe  as well as a usually preposterous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises such as banging rocks together. Incidentally, the snipe (a family of shorebirds) is difficult to catch for experienced hunters, so much so that the word “sniper” is derived from it to refer to anyone skilled enough to shoot one.”

Fortunately, the hunting of the real shorebird, Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata (previously considered a subspecies of Common Snipe), has declined over the years.  “Harvests” of these little elusive birds (standing about 10 inches tall and weighing in at a tad over 3 ounces) has declined over the years from about 137,000 in 19921 to around 83,500 in 20092.

That still sounds like a lot of dead birds to me.

I was hunting this bird with my camera and digiscoping setup when I found him at Lema Ranch, hanging out with a Long-billed Dowitcher.  The dowitcher was out in the open but the Wilson’s Snipe was hiding in the bulrush.  Finally, reluctantly, coming out to forage for invertebrates on the mudflats.

These wading birds have a long bill with sensory “pits” near the tip allowing them to detect prey by touch as they probe the mud.  They also have eyes that are set well back on their head providing full vision to both sides and a binocular overlap to the rear. This arrangement enables a bird to detect the approach of a predator while its beak is fully buried in the mud1.

These attributes seem to allow for very successful foraging as you can see in this photo.  This bird extracting what appears to be a worm.

Snipes also do this interesting bobbing thing and stamp their feet occasionally, apparently to startle prey into moving.  I caught a bit of it on video.  Notice the call of the Red-shouldered Hawk as well as the Canada Goose during the video.

As the Red-shouldered Hawk flew over, the snipe looked up, making sure he wasn’t on the hawk’s menu.

One of the things Wilson’s Snipes are famous for is their winnowing flights (which I would love to witness).  These are performed primarily at the beginning of breeding season and usually occur in the evening1.  They use these flights to establish and maintain breeding territories, among other things.

This winnowing sound is produced by air flowing over the bird’s outstretched tail feathers.

  Sound credit to Andrew Spencer, file XC14873, Courtesy of Xeno-Canto3

Pretty cool if you ask me!  I plan on seeking out some Wilson’s Snipe breeding grounds next season to see if I can witness this phenomenon.  These birds can reach speeds of up to 60 mph!

For more great bird photos, check out Bird Photography Weekly.

References: 1 Birds of North America Online , 2 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Hunting Activity and Harvest During the 2008 and 2009 Hunting Seasons, 3 Xeno -Canto, file XC14873

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