Another of my many favorite birds is a nondescript species of shorebird with a funny name: the Wilson’s snipe.
The literal meaning of the word “snipe” is to make a sly or petty verbal attack at someone or to shoot at someone (as from a sniper) from a hiding spot, especially accurately and at long ranges. Hence, to be a snipe hunter (snipe are considered a game species), one is also called a “sniper,” Indeed, Wilson’s snipe can fly up to 60 mph.
How exactly then that this bashful little shorebird got the name snipe is explained in some natural history information about snipe provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Snipe was derived from the word “snite,” which is a variant of the word “snout.” Anyone seeing this bird for the first time would undoubtedly remember the species by its very long beak. And thus, the snout, er, snipe.
Springtime is the best time, in my book. Few things please me more than the season of renewal when grass turns green, leaves unfurl from dormant buds, and birds have returned from unknown places to fill the woods, water, and fields with color, movement, and songs. Adding to this annual rebirth are the sights and sounds of the Wilson’s snipe.
Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicita) is the name given to the New World snipe, which, until 2003, was called the common snipe. Prior to this name-change, North America’s snipe was believed to be the same species or subspecies of the Old World snipe, the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago).
Morphological differences based on the number of tail feathers and other physical characteristics, including vocal differences, are features that separate the Old and New World species of snipe.
Wilson’s snipe are mostly solitary shorebirds. Found in a variety of wetland habitats, Wilson’s snipe are more often heard than seen. And right now snipe are providing plenty of entertainment for our eyes and ears as male snipe take to the sky and perform aerial courtship sky dances -- complete with visible dives from great heights, while producing a somewhat haunting sound unlike any other noise produced in nature.
During the breeding season, a male snipe will fly some 300 or more feet high followed by steep and speedy dives while beating his wings. Though sounding vocal like that of the American woodcock song, the hollow-sounding and whistled rising “who-who-who” song of the Wilson’s snipe is not vocally produced at all. The sound is actually coming from his tail feathers!
Called “winnowing,” the interesting whistle is created as air flows over his spread-out, specially modified, outer tail feathers during his courtship flights.
The thin and curved outermost feathers of the male snipe’s tail are responsible for this delightful courtship song of spring each time the snipe dives. The performances are tirelessly maintained throughout the evening hours, into the night, and again in the early mornings.
Sometimes male snipe perform their courtship sky dance during the daylight hours, too.
All the while — as male Wilson’s snipe fly, dive, and winnow — female snipes are watching the shows from the ground below. If one is moved by any particular male’s performance, breeding will take place when the male periodically returns to earth. Nesting commences shortly thereafter, where the female weaves a grass-lined nest on the ground in which she lays over the course of several days two to four eggs.
Wilson’s snipe, a plump and abundant, widespread little shorebird occupying a variety of wetland habitats throughout North America, is arguably one of the most fascinating species of wild birds.
Its long beak has sensory pits near the tip, which aids in its ability to detect prey as it probes damp soil for invertebrates. Its over-sized eyes, set far back on its head, gives it complete vision all around. All in all, Wilson’s snipe are well adapted to finding prey and detecting enemies.
This perfectly camouflaged, nearly invisible shorebird makes this special secretive species — the Wilson’s snipe — a bird that’s more likely to be heard winnowing in the springtime or calling from wetland hideouts, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.