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.
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.
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.