On a cold, crisp day in late January, my husband Bruce, son Mark, and I set out on our annual Winter Raptor Survey in nearby Sinking Valley. Although a substantial snow had fallen the previous day, all the township roads had been plowed, and Bruce had no trouble driving our usual 35-mile route.
Despite a light breeze, we counted only three red-tailed hawks, three northern harriers, and two American kestrels. When we stopped at the Little Country Store for groceries, we heard killdeer calling across the road. Two killdeer and 13 mallards waded in a tiny stream bisecting a snow-covered Amish field.
Most surprising of all were four Wilson’s snipes probing in the mud beneath an inch or so of flowing water, their long bills stitching like sewing machine needles. The snipes were crowded into a two foot by two foot curve in the stream that had a small rock on one side. Even though I had seen many American woodcocks over my lifetime, I had never seen a Wilson’s snipe.
We walked across the road for a closer look at the short, stocky shorebirds which were studies in brown and beige with three white stripes on their dark brown and gray backs, heads striped white and dark brown, beige-spotted breasts and white bellies. One snipe tried to hide behind the rock when it noticed us, but half of its head and long bill stuck out, reminding me of a small child unsuccessfully playing hide and seek.
Mark was hoping the snipes would fly so we could see their rapid zigzag flight and hear their rasping “scaipe” calls. But on that cold winter day, they were too busy probing in the mud for worms and other small invertebrates, while their large eyes, set far back on their heads, allowed them to watch us even while they foraged.
Seeing Wilson’s snipes at that time of year in central Pennsylvania was unusual we thought, but when Bruce talked to the bird-watching Amish teenager, who lives next to the store, he told Bruce that as many as five Wilson’s snipes were there every winter. Certainly the small steam in a pasture habitat matched their wintering requirements which also include muddy ponds, ditches, ephemeral pools, barnyard drainage, marshes, beaver ponds, or spring outlets.
However, according to Terrestrial Vertebrates of Pennsylvania: A Complete Guide to Species of Conservation Concern, “successful overwintering in Pennsylvania [of Wilson’s snipe] is probably rare except possibly in brackish marshes of the extreme southeastern portion of the state.” Gerald McWilliams and Daniel Brauning, writing in The Birds of Pennsylvania, agree that most wintering snipes are found in Pennsylvania’s Coastal Plain and Piedmont but admit that there are widespread but local winter records most years in our Ridge and Valley province and in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Still, having heard the spoofing stories of snipe hunts, I was amused that while hunting for raptors we had found snipes instead.Once our Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata) was considered a subspecies of common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), but, based on recent taxonomy studies, it was classified as a full species in 2002 by the American Ornithologist Union. Named for Alexander Wilson, a Scottish immigrant who lived in Philadelphia, he was a self-trained ornithologist and artist, who traveled throughout the eastern United States, collecting and studying birds. He produced his nine-volume American Ornithology at the beginning of the nineteenth century which earned him the title “Father of American Ornithology.”
Wilson’s snipes breed in wetlands across northern North America and usually winter from the southern United States through Central America to Venezuela. Pennsylvania is near their southern breeding range in eastern North America, and because they are so dependent on wetlands throughout the year, they have been selected as a Species of Maintenance Concern in the commonwealth. Between the first and second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird atlases, their numbers decreased by ten percent. In addition, they are rare breeders here most likely in the wetlands of northwestern Pennsylvania in the counties of Crawford, Lawrence, Mercer and Erie. In fact, back in 1923, George Miksch Sutton, who became a famous ornithologist and artist, was then Pennsylvania’s ornithologist and watched several Wilson’s snipes nesting in Crawford County.
Wilson’s snipes migrate through the state beginning in mid-March, moving in flocks on moonlit nights, the males a week or more ahead of the females. Their extra-large breast muscles that give them their plump appearance enable them to fly as fast as 60 mph.
If any Wilson’s snipes are still here in mid-April through May and early June, they may be breeders. And if any birdwatchers are especially lucky, they may observe their diving flight displays, when their outermost tail feathers spread to make a “winnowing” sound that reminds me of the tremulous calls of eastern screech-owls. Most frequently males display to defend territories and attract mates, but sometimes females also “winnow.” They even “winnow” occasionally during migration as well as on their breeding grounds and at all times, both day and night, but most commonly after sunset.
They have an array of calls and displays as part of forming pairs, even flipping upside down during dives. Finally, once they are paired, they fly close together with their wings held at 45 degrees in a nuptial flight display. Leslie M. Tuck, who studied them on their nesting grounds in Newfoundland and Ontario, published his monograph on them back in 1972 and recorded their many courtship displays.
A female has her choice of several males and even copulates with a few, only establishing a pair bond with one male after she’s chosen her nest site and begun to lay her eggs. But she spends time, as soon as she arrives in her breeding area, looking for a nesting site and making several scrapes on wet areas such as hummocks or edges of sedge bogs, fens, marshes, willow or alder swamps. She places her nest on the ground, well-hidden by grasses, sedges, or sphagnum moss, lining her shallow scrape with grasses.
She lays two to four olive-brown eggs and incubates them for 18 to 20 days, Twenty-four hours before they hatch, the chicks begin peeping, and the female responds by straddling the nest and clucking softly. Covered with down that dries within an hour, the chicks climb on the female’s back or wander away on their long legs and huge feet.
The male usually takes the first two hatched chicks and the female the second two, leading them to wet areas where they feed them bill to bill. But at six days of age, the young peck at food and probe for it, becoming proficient when they are ten days old, although the parents continue to feed them for at least another ten days and as long as two months, according to researcher K.A. Arnold writing in Tacha and Braun (1994).
Mostly they eat the larvae of crane, horse and deer flies, beetles, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers, and ants as well as snails, crustaceans, and worms, using sensory pits near the flexible tips of their bills, to find prey by touch. Their bills are also flexible and open to grasp food without moving from the soil. Sometimes not only their entire bills are covered with water but their foreheads as well in their hunt for food.
The earth colors of Wilson’s snipes provide them with camouflage, so they only flush at the last minute when confronted by a predator. They also practice a distraction display—the females at their nests and both parents with their young—by fluttering up from the ground or nest, falling back to the ground, spinning and fluttering around, falling on their sides and beating their wings, as if in a drunken rage, or lying on their breasts and beating their wings.
Although there has been no observation of egg or chick predation, great horned owls, peregrine falcons, merlins, northern goshawks, Cooper’s hawks, and especially northern harriers prey on adults.
Wilson’s snipes begin their migration south as early as mid-July in Pennsylvania and may not reach their destination until November if they are heading as far south as Venezuela. Juveniles leave first, followed by females and then males. They don’t always remain in one place, for instance, numbers of snipes in Venezuela increase in January and February at the same time they decrease in southern Louisiana. Apparently, they move in search of food, especially if their chosen spots have dried out.
If Tuck and other researchers are right and at least 40 per cent of Wilson’s snipes return to the same wintering grounds every year, I can look forward to seeing them this winter and subsequent winters as long as the habitat remains unchanged.
To see and hear a Wilson’s snipe calling, watch a video on YouTube from Wild Bird Video Productions.