Mike Jacobs: Snipe call attention to themselves
Here at Magpie Ridge west of Gilby, N.D., where I watch most of my birds and where no magpie has been seen for many months: Here the bird of the week is Wilson's snipe. This would not be the case for many readers. The snipe is not uncommon, but i...
Here at Magpie Ridge west of Gilby, N.D., where I watch most of my birds and where no magpie has been seen for many months:
Here the bird of the week is Wilson's snipe.
This would not be the case for many readers. The snipe is not uncommon, but it is site specific, place bound or habitat dependent. You choose the term.
Snipe likely would not show up in urban parks or suburban backyards or farm fields. Instead, the snipe is a bird of overgrown wetlands. Water in the right amount is an important element of snipe habitat. So is grass of the right height. Snipe want the grass tall and the water low.
That's the combination that exists in the rank meadow behind our house, and so snipe are fixtures of bird life at our place in the spring.
Not that I expect to see a snipe on the ground. The snipe has almost perfect camouflage, heavily streaked and able to disappear in the tall grass.
Any moist and overgrown meadow is likely to have snipe. Such habitat is decreasing as agricultural technology finds even more ways to turn habitat into farmland. Yet where there is habitat, there will be snipe.
Where snipe occur, they are conspicuous-not because of their plumage as such grassland birds as pheasants are conspicuous, nor even because of their song, as meadowlarks are conspicuous. With its noise, however, the snipe calls attention to itself.
Snipe noise is unique and unforgettable, and snipe are conspicuous because of the noise they make, an otherworldly winnowing noise, like air passing through a filter of some kind. This is exactly how snipe noise is produced. It is not vocal but mechanical. It results from air pushing through the outspread feathers of a snipe's tail. With this noise, the bird announces its presence, defines its territory and declares its desirability as a mate.
Most evenings last week, at least two snipe declared themselves. I could hear one quite close by east of the house and a second farther away to the west. To my surprise-and delight, I admit-these dueling snipe suddenly came together, in pursuit of a third bird. What resulted was a mad dash of snipe across the landscape, accompanied by frenzied, high-pitched cheeping noises broken occasionally by the winnowing sounds characteristic of snipe. I imagine this was a courtship chase, with two males in pursuit of a single female. Snipe are alike in their appearance, male and female, so I am depending here on their behavior rather than appearance.
In appearance, snipe are grayish brown overall, with a suggestion of duotone in the wings, with the front being darker than the trailing edge. Seen close up, the facial area is rather pale. with a darker line extending from the bill toward the eye, which is large and dark.
I most often see snipe in the spring, when they are establishing territories and courting mates. More often I hear them rather than see them, because my efforts to spot them circling in the sky are often futile. Now and again, I have flushed snipe from the rank meadow behind our house, but that is always a surprise.
Bird of note
As I said, the snipe is the bird of the week at our place west of Gilby, but many readers might give the title to a different species. I realized this at Tuesday's meeting of the Rotary Club, when two members asked me what bird was tearing up their lawns. Under questioning, both said that the birds were robin-sized or larger and that they displayed a blaze or chevron of black on their upper chests. That pretty much describes the northern flicker.
The flicker is the bird that brings the most inquiries, perhaps because it is an obvious and yet surprising bird. What's surprising about the flicker is that it is a member of the woodpecker family, and perhaps the best way to think of it is as the woodpecker that acts like a robin.
Flickers are distinguished by their spotted breasts, with the black patch above and the pattern on their faces, males with red moustaches and females without.