SCHIESS: Anyone for a snipe hunt?
“Ever been on a snipe hunt?” asked an experienced Boy Scout.
“Nope,” replied the Tenderfoot.
“We’ll take you on one tonight.”
A game played in many youth camps each summer is very different from the snipe hunting which reduced the population of the Wilson’s snipe during the late nineteenth century. But in both activities, bagging a snipe is difficult.
Wilson’s snipe are one of the most common shorebirds in the United States and can be found year around in the Upper Snake River Valley. Most will migrate south during the winter, but a few remain in the warm marshes and sloughs remaining open during the winter.
On the way down from deer hunting last week, seven of these earth probing birds were using their bill to dig snails and worms from the edge of some warm water seeps northeast of St. Anthony. These shorebirds love the numerous warm springs and seeps that feed the Henrys Fork from Rexburg to Ashton even in the winter.
Last spring at the headwaters of Birch Creek near Blue Dome, fence posts were common perches for male snipes as they would sing, trying to attract a mate. Leaving the perch, the male would fly in circles with shallow dives, “winnowing,” trying to attract a female or to defend its territory from other males.
Winnowing is not a vocal sound, but is caused by air rushing over the outer tail feathers. These feathers are thin and curved, creating the sound as the air is forced over them by the beating wings.
After a female chooses her preferred male, breeding takes place as a wrestling match in the high grass. Rarely do you see the activity, but the grass is dancing as the birds chase each other.
The nest of Wilson’s snipes, camouflaged in short grass, almost always contains four eggs. The first two chicks to hatch leave the nest with the male, abandoning the female to take care of the last two. This divorce is final as studies show the adults have no further contact with each other. The female takes the final chicks to raise. It is a congenial process with no attorney necessary to complicate matters or charge a bucketful of worms.
Snipe’s bills are designed for specific feeding techniques. The long bill has sensory pits at the tip allowing them to probe deep in the mud for earthworms and insects. It is also flexible allowing the tips to open without any movement at the base of the bill. This allows the snipe to harvest their prey without dealing with mud and dirt filling their bill.
For many years, the Wilson snipe was thought to be the same bird as the Common snipe of Europe. In 2002 Wilson’s snipe was classified as a sub species of the Common, differing in the wing color and the number of tail feathers.
Heavily hunted during the late nineteenth century reduced snipe populations drastically. Now very few are hunted but the loss of wetlands in some areas have continued to reduce their populations.
This well camouflaged bird is shy, often concealing itself in decaying vegetation, flushing only when closely approached. Its aerial zigzag pattern of flight confuses predators and makes it difficult to shoot. Because of the bird’s elusive nature, the term “sniper” was given to sharpshooters in the early nineteenth century during combat.
Many boy and girl scouts as well as many hunters, can testify of snipe’s elusiveness as all have come back with empty bags during a real or agnostic snipe hunt.