Bird Lore: Wilson’s Snipe

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Wilson's Snipe (Photo by Blair Bernson)
Wilson’s Snipe (Photo by Blair Bernson)

Wilson’s Snipe is a stocky shorebird with a straight, long bill that frequents marshes, bogs, and wet meadows. In Edmonds, look for it in fall and winter along the grasses on the west side of the marsh.

Wilson’s Snipe breeds across Alaska, Canada, and the northern tier of the Lower 48. It winters across the southern U.S. and as far south as northern South America. Washington is part of its smaller year-round range. While this species breeds in Washington, it has not been known to breed in the Edmonds Marsh.

Photo by Carol Riddell
Photo by Carol Riddell

The snipe uses its long bill to probe for prey in soft mud. Its bill tip is flexible and sensitive, so that it can detect and capture food underground. While the tip of the bill opens to grasp food, the base of the bill remains closed. This allows the snipe to slurp up prey from the mud without having to remove its bill from the ground. It also plucks prey from shallow water or from the surface of the ground. Prey are burrowing insects and those that live in shallow water. They include larvae of horse flies and crane flies, beetles, earthworms and others. Diet also includes some leeches, mollusks, crustaceans, spiders, and frogs.

Wilson’s Snipe is more apparent during breeding season when it often calls from atop a fencepost or dead tree near ponds, wet pastures, or flooded agricultural fields. Especially at night the male performs a winnowing display, flying in high circles and making shallow dives. When the snipe dives, vibration of its outer tail feathers produces a whinnying sound when it reaches an air speed of about 25 mph.

The female builds her nest on the ground, usually in a clump of grass or tundra vegetation where it is well hidden. The female incubates her 3-4 eggs for a period of about three weeks. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching. The parents feed them until they learn to find their own food. Age at first flight is about three weeks.

Photo by Carol Riddell
Photo by Carol Riddell

Wilson’s Snipe has large pectoral muscles that make up about a quarter of the bird’s weight. It can reach speeds of about 60 mph because of these large flight muscles. Its eyes are set far back on its head so that it can see almost as well behind it as it can see in front and to the side. This makes it difficult for a predator to sneak up on a feeding snipe.

The oldest known Wilson’s Snipe was at least 9 years and three months of age, based on the recovered band of a bird shot in Canada. It is the only shorebird that is hunted, along with ducks and coots, in Washington. A snipe is a difficult target because of its erratic flight style.

For conservation purposes, the Wilson’s Snipe is a bird of least concern. Its population is estimated at 2 million and that population remained stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

The ground call of a Wilson’s Snipe can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/325933. Its song is here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/322825.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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