The Snipe

I had the fortune of seeing a family of snipe this week. This is a bird that few people notice or know of, and some people think is imaginary.

Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, is in the shorebird family: Scolopacidae. It is the most common snipe in North America.

They are short, pudgy birds about the size of an American Robin; usually found in marshes, with sandy coloring and markings that perfectly camouflage them.

This is the family of four we spotted while birding at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this week.

With the tall grass and their camouflage, you can see how tricky they are to spot. They are standing (above photo) in the tall grass that spans the photo’s upper center. In the foreground on a log is a pair of resting green-winged teals.

We were on our annual visit to see the waterfowl winter migration. A spectacle that always delights.

While there, we spotted the snipes. In addition to their camouflaging, they have elusive behavior.

In over 30 years of birding, I have seen the snipe only about a half-dozen times. Spotting four at once was an unprecedented bonanza.

We were on the Refuge’s auto tour at one of the few places where we were allowed to get out of our car. We were having lunch: enjoying a bite, then scanning with the binoculars, listening to the cacophony of migrating geese and ducks, taking another bite, then looking through the spotting scope. To birders like Athena and me, this is heaven.

In our initial 360-degree binocular scan of the area, we spotted the snipes and enjoyed close to an hour there.

They never changed positions in that hour, except an occasional head lift.

This is the scene without extra lenses.

They use their long bill to probe into the mud for food. Their diet consists of insect larvae and insects like dragonflies, beetles and moths; and invertebrates like snails and worms.

Two special features of that marvelous bill: it is flexible and thereby good for probing; and the snipe can swallow small prey without pulling their bill from the mud.

John James Audubon wrote an extensive observation about the snipe–it’s behavior, migration, flight, breeding, and more.

Link: Audubon’s Birds of America, American Snipe

They do not breed in Northern California, and I have never seen the mating displays. But I have read they have a spectacular flight dance.

Here is Audubon’s description of the flight dance of a snipe pair:

It often happens that before these birds depart in spring, many are already mated. The birds are then met with in meadows or on low grounds, and, by being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both mount high in the air in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance as it were to their own music; for at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingling together, each more or less distinct….”

Audubon’s snipe drawing, Plate 243, is below. It was completed in 1835. This is an online partial drawing.

“American Snipe” by John J. Audubon, Plate 243. Courtesy audubon.org

In Audubon’s time (1785-1851), the bird was called the American Snipe. At that time, Alexander Wilson, a Scottish-American ornithologist and illustrator, was the first to prove the snipe here in America was different than the Common Snipe of Europe. So it was dubbed the American Snipe.

Over the years it would be named the Common Snipe, and then more recently it was further classified into two bird species, the most common American Snipe being named Wilson’s Snipe.

Why is it an imaginary bird to some people?

Because there is an age-old trick dating back to the mid-1800s called the Snipe hunt. As a rite-of-passage trick, elders tell a young person how to hunt for snipe (or some other non-existing creature), and then leave them alone in the woods with an empty bag and instructions for catching it. It’s a fool’s errand that tricks young ones into goofy behavior alone in the woods while everyone else runs away. Many youngsters, after the gig is up, think there is no such thing as a snipe.

As we sat eating lunch, basking in the sunshine and the thrill of being near four snipes, a few people walked by. We invited them to take a look in the scope at the snipe.

Their enthusiastic reactions and comments indicated they knew of the snipe but had rarely seen one. All were in awe.

This is a photo taken through the spotting scope.

We spotted nearly 40 different bird species that day, and thousands and thousands of migrating waterfowl visiting Northern California from as far north as Russia’s East Siberian Sea and North America’s Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. An incredible migration that I will tell you more about soon.

Fortunately for us, snipes are not imaginary. They are old and ancient friends of Homo sapiens. The name may change occasionally, but the bird has been occupying marsh shorelines for well over 187 years.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Range Map for Wilson's Snipe
Range map Gallinago delicata. Ora=Breeding; Yel=Migration; Pur=Year-round; Blue=Nonbreeding. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

92 thoughts on “The Snipe

    • Yes, the Wilson’s Snipe is always a treat. I loved hearing about the sighting of one at the EBF, Hien. If you scan the water’s edges you might get lucky. Thanks very much.

  1. Maybe a version of the Snipe Hunt is the Boy Scounts transition at a Jamboree. The young scouts are sent around to the other troops with a bucket to borrow some water gas to get their fire started.

    • Yes, the Snipe Hunt is big in the Boy Scouts. My teenage friend who is an Eagle Scout just told me about a Snipe Hunt on his camp trip this past summer. Thank you, as always dear Bill, for your visit today.

  2. What a delightful posting, Jet. I loved seeing all of the shots of the snipes (and the snow geese in flight) and the photo of Athena was an added bonus. Thanks too for including all of the additional info about the species, including the cool Audubon drawing. As far as I recall, I have only had a couple of encounters with Wilson’s Snipes, both in January 2013, when I encountered one in a local snowy marshland park. Here’s a link to the posting I did after that first encounter https://michaelqpowell.com/2013/01/26/wilsons-snipe/ . They really are unusual birds and I did not realize back then how relatively uncommon they are in my area.

    • You and I share the same fascination and reverence for this remarkable and unique bird, Mike. I’m glad you provided the link and really enjoyed your snipe-in-the-snow photos. Many thanks for your visit and comment today, much appreciated.

  3. How excitng! I’ve never seen a Snipe at that location but, have seen them in California a few times.
    The images are lovely and I know right where you two had lunch!! It’s a lovely spot and one of my favorites for sunset while visiting that refuge.

    The information is great and I learned something new about them and their name change.

    I hope you have a lovely week-end, Jet!

  4. Excellent post, both photos and commentary. I adore the vignette effect in the photo of Snipe through the spotting scope. And binoculars? Binocs are a photographer’s best friend.

    • Thanks very much for your visit and comment today, babsje, I enjoyed it. I’m glad you liked the digi-photo I included of the snipe photo through the scope. And I couldn’t agree more about how important a good set of binoculars is. Many thanks.

  5. A bird that is seen one season or another in all 48 mainland States, and I’ve yet to see one, Jet! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Great sighting, love the shots! I love that ‘big view’ shot showing where they were and the really cool convenience of your car alongside so close. Finding remote gem areas to find and view birds in comfort (along with having a picnic, no less! ๐Ÿ˜) is pretty awesome with enjoying nature.

    • I have no doubt that you will one day see a snipe, Donna. And you will probably never forget the places where you do see a snipe, because they are few and far between. Until then, I’m glad I could share some of our special snipe moments with you here today. Thanks so much for your visit, much appreciated.

    • I just looked up the snipe in “Up” and I see how different they look, but it’s still fun that these unique creatures make it into mainstream and popular movies. I am happy I could share a bit of this snipe’s wonderful life with you here today, Wayne. Always a joy to see you, my friend.

  6. How neat! I must admit to being one of those people who didnโ€™t know for certain if snipes were real (admittedly, Iโ€™m not all that familiar with bird species). What a neat and unexpected thing for you to see.

    • Oh yay, I’m glad I could share the real snipe with you here today, Diana, to clear your mind that yes they really do exist. I’m guessing this wasn’t something you think about often (heh heh), but still glad I could share this lovely bird with you. A delight to have you stop by, thank you.

  7. Very interesting! And you were right; I’ve never seen one – although I have heard of them. What a treat for you and Athena to spot and enjoy these four! Thanks for sharing this joyful experience!

    • Oh so fun to share the snipe with you today, dear Nan. It was indeed a treat for us to see the family of four. Fun too to share them with you and many others. Thanks so much for taking an interest in our adventures.

  8. Happy to read and see your snipe hunt with camera went so well, a bonus on an already pretty exciting trip! I didnโ€™t know snipes were reputed to be imaginary, an interesting tidbit (and the bill features and snipe diet were also interesting – yum!)
    Thanks, Jet, and enjoy your weekend!

    • Yes, it was a pretty exciting trip we had this week to the Sacramento NWR, pc. It always is. We saw bald eagles, so many ducks and geese, field birds, songbirds, shorebirds — the whole gamut. It’s a four-mile auto tour and we spent five hours there! It was great fun sharing the snipe with you today, and I am glad you found it interesting. Sending smiles your way, pc, for a fun weekend ahead. My warmest thanks.

    • Hi Anneli, well, we have rarely seen snipe here, but we had this one day this week that was an unusual sighting. So I’m glad I could share that excitement with you, and I hope there will be a day when you get a look at this special bird, too. Many thanks for your visit today.

    • Hi Jan, I’m not a very outgoing person in real life, but when there’s a snipe in the scope, I make an exception. Sounds funny but it’s true. My warmest thanks, Jan, it’s always a pleasure to have you stop by.

  9. Feeling connected to pudgy in thes post Holiday chilly times in the North East. Embracing the changing uplifting nature from elsewhereโ€ฆ and you Jet. Thank you ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿผ

    • My friend, HJ — I’m happy you enjoyed the snipe post today. They are such a unique and elusive bird, and it was fun doing a little more in-depth research on them for this post. Cheers to you, HJ, and many thanks and smiles.

  10. No fools’ errand here! A wonderful occasion & report. I’ve watched the snipe’s antics several times but, after enjoying what you found here, I’m looking forward to encountering the bird’s aerial displays more than ever. Maybe this spring I’ll make another effort.

    • I was glad to get your words today, Walt, and to hear you’ve seen the snipe’s aerial displays. I thought of you, actually, as one of my eastern outdoor friends who may have seen just the sight I would like to. And how wonderful that you will keep your eyes open on one of your many woodsy adventures for more springtime snipe displays. My warmest thanks.

  11. Great spotting! Your trip yielded many sitings, no wonder you were in heaven. ๐Ÿ™‚ The Wilson’s Snipe reminds me of the American Woodcock that we see in our woods in the spring. They have a similar mating dance, so perhaps they are related.

    • The Wilson’s snipe does look very much like the American Woodcock, Eliza. I have never seen a Woodcock, and oh my goodness, how lovely they must be to watch in the spring. Cheers and many thanks.

  12. I used to see them all the time at Ruby Marsh Wildlife Refuge in Northern Nevada. Do you know if theyโ€™re related to the woodcock of the eastern states? Recently weโ€™ve had a feral Muscovy duck at my office. Heโ€™s a weird looking dude and I thought he might be a specklebelly goose at one point.

    • Hi Craig. Great to know you have enjoyed many a snipe at Ruby Marsh WR. Yes, they are in the same family as the American Woodcock. Had to chuckle at the weird looking dude feral Muscovy. My warmest thanks for the fun avian exchange.

  13. Yโ€‹et another delightFULL post!!! How lucky to catch such convenient views of this elusive bird. Wouldn’t it be a thrill to witness their courting dance (flight)?

    Then again I enjoyed the reminder of the snow geese in flight. It’s hard to choose a favorite sighting, but that has to be in the Top Ten in my book.

    I was just telling Eric that I would love to hear the mating calls of a loon, but alas they don’t visit our area for their ‘honeymoon’โ€‹. Though we have been seeing them down here during the winter.

    Guess I’ll just have to be content with the news that the otters have been sliding down the bank of the creek below the house! (Yay! ๐Ÿค—) Have to admit that’s way more than I ever imagined seeing in my wildest dreams!

    • Your comment was a true delight, Gunta. Yes, I agree with you, witnessing the Wilson’s snipe courtship dance would be absolutely thrilling. So would hearing the mating calls of a loon. But seeing wild river otters below your house, well, that’s also wildly excellent. Wonderful that we have so many awesome creatures on this planet. Cheers, my friend–sending smiles and thanks.

  14. Thanks for sharing the fabulous birding day!! How wonderful to not only watch the snipes, but also see 40 different bird species and the migration! I’m envious of the birding day and wonderful photos and looking forward to the migration posts. Thanks for the wonderful post to distract me from the Green Bay loss last night and Tampa Bay currently losing!!

    • It was a joy to share the bird migration with you, ACI, and I’m glad it distracted you from the Packers and Bucs losses. Sorry about Josh Allen, too. Nail-biters, every one of them. I’ll be sharing some of the other beautiful birds from that birding day as well. Sending you smiles and thanks.

  15. Thank you for the introduction to the snipe! I’d like to think that a kind, or gentle-souled person centuries ago, invented that “Snipe Hunt” method in order to protect the snipe and helped them survive to this day…

    • I know there have been gentle-souled people on this planet for centuries, so that’s a comfort we can share, Endless Weekend. And I am glad I could introduce the beautiful snipe to you, thanks very much for your visit.

  16. I’ve never seen a Snipe but don’t spend a lot of time birding so with lack of effort comes lack of sighting. But I’ve seen Snipe now. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s funny that many people don’t know they even exist and the concept of a “Snipe Hunt” is considered a practical joke. An episode of “Cheers” once had that as a gag. And of course, many sarcastic folks do actually snipe at others. ๐Ÿ™‚ Great post and photographs, Jet and Athena.

    • Really fun to have you stop by Steve, and how wonderful that I could share the beauty of the snipe with you. With all your outdoor and photographic adventures, who knows, you may one day come upon one. My warmest thanks to you.

  17. My, what a very long beak Wilsonโ€™s Snipe has! That must have been thrilling to see four of the elusive birds together. Thanks so much for sharing their history and behavior and the photos! It’s lovely that you and Athena have an annual tradition of visiting the wildlife refuge to see the migration and then get an extra treat. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I am delighted you enjoyed the snipe post Barbara, for they are really special birds. Since you are at the shore and birding often, you might one day see one. Our annual tradition to visit the waterfowl at the Sacramento Valley is one of my favorite things in life. We go every winter and now it has been 31 years in a row. The only year we couldn’t go was last year when Covid was so bad. We were really thrilled to be able to go this year. Always a joy to have you stop by, Barbara, thank you.

  18. Now I know the origin of a Snipe Hunt! Loved your post, Jet, and I’m happy for you that you had such a great sighting. This spot looks like a fabulous birding spot. Great photos of these unusual looking birds and fun that you included a photo of your photographer at rest. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I so enjoyed your visit and comment, Jane, thanks so much. Thanks for your interest in the snipe, and how fun that you now know the origin of the snipe hunt. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, always an honor to hear your “take” on the photos as you are such an accomplished photographer yourself. My warmest thanks.

  19. Ours are often nicknamed ‘Jack Snipes’. I’ve seen one once. I went to a nature reserve a few years ago and all the birders in the hide were looking at something, we asked what it was and they showed us.

    • It was great fun to hear about the snipe in the UK, Andrea…not only their nickname there, but that the excitement in the blind was equal to the excitement we have here of the snipe. I enjoyed your words very much, Andrea. Thank you.

  20. I learned several things about their behavior and history here; as much as I love Athena’s photos, your text never fails to educate and entertain. I smiled particularly at their ability to swallow food without having to pull their bill from the mud: how efficient!

    I encountered my second Wilson’s Snipe recently, thanks to a Killdeer that also had spotted it. Without the Killdeer, I’m not sure I would have seen it, but I was lucky enough to get some fine photos, which I’ll share in time. I was on an auto route, too, and in almost exactly the same place where I spotted one a year ago. Both were adults, so it’s hard to say if it was the same bird, but it certainly provided the same sense of delight!

    • Wonderful to hear how much you enjoyed the snipe adventure, Linda. I really appreciate your kind words and acknowledgement on the writing. And I so enjoyed hearing about your recent Wilson’s snipe sighting, and that you had the help of the killdeer. I espec. love that you remembered seeing one in that same place last year, because that is one of the secrets of finding our avian gems: remembering from year to year who we spot where. Often it’s the habitat or nesting habits that bring the same species or even indiv. to the same spot. Thanks so much for your lovely visit here, Linda, it is much appreciated.

    • How nice to see you, RH! I think this means Very Very Good, for it seems that Vincent Van Gogh has nothing to do with the snipe post. And my thanks and big smiles to you, my friend.

  21. Pingback: The Snipe โ€” Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

  22. What a fabulous place to go to see the migrating birds, and the snipe was such a wonderful bonus. I enjoyed the info, including the fact that snipes can swallow prey while the bill is still in the mud!
    We get two species of snipe here in SA – the one rather unsurprisingly known as the African snipe! That is G. nigripennis. There is also the great snipe (G. media) which I gather is present globally (status is near threatened, sadly). (We also have a painted snipe, which I have just learned is snipe-like and not a true snipe at all!) I look forward to more posts on the bird migrations.

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