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Birding on the alvar: Wilson’s Snipe

D. Homer - Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Snipe by David Homer

One of the more interesting birds in our region is the Wilson’s Snipe.  Classified as a Shorebird, this species inhabits flooded grasslands, bogs and marshes. They are frequently seen, as this one in the accompanying picture, standing on a fence post scanning the surrounding area and uttering a very loud and weird “tuck-a-tuck-a-tuck-a-tuck” call!

With their long bills, they probe the moist soil and muck for worms and insects.

When I first took a serious interest in birds and in particular snipes, I was awakened one night, many years ago now, by a question “…how does the bird capture a worm?”  With such a long bill driven into the ground, how could it possibly open the bill to retrieve its prey?  Have you ever tried opening scissors after pushing them, closed, into the soil?  Think about it for a moment! It’s almost impossible!  With this question playing on my mind, I couldn’t get back to sleep so I got up and went to my library and pulled a number of bird guides from the shelves.  The answer was not to be found in any of them. Having just bought my first personal computer with internet capability, I turned it on and entered my question into the search box.  Low and behold, there was the answer.  Snipes have a very pliable  bill- end containing  many nerve endings which allows them to indeed open the tip of their bill without opening it entirely, thus enabling them to take the worm into their bill and retrieve it from the ground!  What a revelation but unfortunately I was now so wound up, I couldn’t get back to sleep even with the answer!

During the days of market hunting, snipes were considered to be one of the tastiest of wild birds and, as such were in high demand.  The birds however were very difficult to shoot as they exploded into the air in a zigzagging flight pattern.  Only the best of these hunters were successful in bagging them and they became known as “snipers”, the term from which crack shots in the military and police forces are now known!

Early spring is when I like to go out in the evening in search of snipes.  During the courtship and mating season, males will climb high in the sky and swoop down in shallow, erratic dives before climbing up and repeating the display for females to witness.  During the dive, air flowing between the tail feathers creates a winnowing sound which can be heard for quite a distance.  There could be a number of males each performing which creates a lovely chorus.  It is a sight and sound to behold, one not easily forgotten!

No wonder I find Wilson’s snipes so captivating!

David A. Homer is a volunteer and member of the Board of Directors.

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