Friday, October 4, 2013

Wilson’s Snipe

On Wednesday morning, John Holden and I birded the Great Western Industrial Park near Randolph, Minnesota. The park is being developed in beautiful prairieland and, in any season, is a great place to look for birds. You would think that people with foresight would build their park in a cornfield rather than in lovely, pond-studded grassland.

One highlight of the visit was this Wilson’s Snipe. This species breeds across Canada and the northern United States, wintering southward all the way through South America. Despite being common within its range, relatively little is known about its biology. The snipe’s marshy habitat, camouflaged coloration, and because it usually forages at dawn and dusk, all combine to make the species difficult to study.

This species is variably named the Common or Wilson’s snipe. What you call it depends if you consider our species to be the same as the Old World's Common Snipe. These days ornithologists treat the Wilson’s Snipe as a distinct species from the Common—their breeding displays, when they dive while making a winnowing sound with their outer tail feathers, are different. They also look slightly different.

Some snipe trivia from Mueller (1999): the word “snipe” is derived from “snite,” meaning “snout”—a reference to their long bills. As do other sandpipers, the bill has sensory pits near the tip, so snipes can detect their prey under their muddy, marshy habitat. Finally, snipe eyes are set relatively far back on their head—they are able to see right and left, but also to the rear—even when their bills are probing the mud, they can watch for predators from behind.

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