Posted by: atowhee | December 10, 2011


Eleven months before our next American Presidential election the political sniping already seems to be coming from some automatic weapon.  No re-loading required, just snipe away.  Well, today I got to do a brief bit of sniping, all very rewarding, nobody hurt.  Not even any damage intended.  Three Wilson’s Snipe were lazing across the lawn of a North Mountain Park soccer field.   No doubt the bright sunshine after a sub-freezing night added to their sense of security and well-being.  They eyed me cautiously with their rather large eyes but continued to probe the grass with their more-than-adequate beaks.

Snipe’s eyes are unsual.  Not many animals can see straight overhead without any twisting or turning of head or neck.  The Snipe’s eyes are so far up the side of the skull they can view straight above…and feed on the ground at the same time.  Imagine if you could eat a burrito and look over your shoulder at the same time. Overhead viewing is an excellent survival ability for a bird that’s usually on the ground and hunted by falcons and Harriers overhead.

Snipe are in the shorebird family but the only shores they ever see are the edges of mountain lakes or muddy margins of farm ponds.  You’ll not see a snipe chasing Sanderlings across the sand at Gold Beach.  Here, in fact, they often consort with Killdeer in winter, another landlubber of a “shorebird.”

BNA Online describes this species as “elusive” so we’re lucky that in the Rogue Valley snipe are often approachable (with care) and not hard to find in the right damp meadows…or ball diamonds.  In spring they can be observed on fence posts and winnowing the in the air above Howard Prairie.  The name “snipe; comes from “snite” a variant of “snout.”  So the antique common name of this bird comes from its long bill.  Europe has three snipe species and at one time our Wilson’s was considered conspecific with their Common Snipe. The Wilson’s Snipe flies off in a characteristic zig-zag pattern unlike most similar birds (Woodcock, dowitchers). The snipe’s secretive ways and nesting habitat (dense grassy marshes) mean its life and behavior are poorly known.  There have been no major publications on the Wilson’s Snipe in forty years.  Sounds like a doctoral thesis waiting to be done.  The bird was once heavily hunted thus the folkloric freight of the frustrating “snipe hunt.”

The snipe—like all shorebirds—is largely a predator.  Here’s what BNA says about their eating:  [It’s been] “conjectured that the prey was moved up the backward-projecting serrations inside the bill by movements of the tongue. Large prey items—e.g., earthworms—the snipe may extract from soil and beat into several pieces before swallowing. May probe several times in same hole and many times in small area. Apparently finds prey by touch with sensory pits near tip of beak. Beak very flexible, and tip can be opened and closed with no movement at base. Typically, tip of beak is opened at beginning of a probe. Usually finds prey at least once every several probes. Occasionally feeds by stamping feet or bouncing up and down, apparently to startle prey into moving. Can thus find prey near surface or in soils too hard for probing.”

Just think: here’s a bird common across much of North America and we still don’t know how it actually eats!


  1. Wednesday 12/14/2011 – 10 snipe on the ball field at North Mountain Park.

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