To begin discussing a Wilson's Snipe one must start with its call. Haunting and eery in composition, the snipe's signature perhaps reflects human feelings towards the areas it inhabits: wetlands and bogs, marshes and swamps. These are marginal areas of little apparent use, though the snipe uses its bombastic winnowing on these grounds to attract mates and scare away predators. Its call is in fact not a call or vocalization, but rather the passage of air through primary feathers as the bird swirls through its wetland residency.
I knew the call of a snipe long before I knew that a snipe made the call. It seemed amazing that such a call could come from such a shorebird. Short and stocky, with a long straight bill used for probing invertebrates, the snipe appears diminutive and awkward. Yet once flushed, the birds zig-zag in flight and incite riotous calls from nearby Sandhill Cranes and Red-winged Blackbirds. Mallards fly from the springs where a few days ago three snipe flushed as I approached a relatively fresh deer carcass. No doubt these birds were taking advantage of the invertebrates doing the work of cleaning the deer.
Wilson's Snipe are named for Alexander Wilson, a famous ornithologist. The bird's Latin name (Gallinigo delicata) means “resembling a hen.” This likely refers to the heavy chest of the snipe. Huge pectoral muscles account for one quarter of the bird's weight and help it to achieve speeds of up to 60 miles per hour in flight. The etymology of the word “sniper” originates from British soldiers hunting snipe in India,where they were said “to snipe” these erratic and winnowing birds.
Here at Faville Grove, you can't snipe the Wilson's Snipe, though you can enjoy their winnowing calls as the birds occupy the Ledge Lowlands in great numbers. These wet prairies offer excellent habitat for the snipe, and standing on the south-easternmost exposure of Waterloo Quartzite listening for snipe makes for an excellent spring evening.
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward