Snipe, Hunting

As early as the 1840s, unsuspecting children and newcomers to country life were being duped into trying to catch a nonexistent animal called a snipe. Even today, ‘snipe hunts’ continue, as new innocents are tricked into seeking an imaginary creature whose description varies according to the imagination of the perpetrators.

During my first year at summer camp, after being challenged to find one of the elusive creatures and trap it with a pillowcase, my hunt came to an early end when the older girls watching me fumble about in the dark couldn’t contain their giggles.

That experience led me to believe for decades that all snipe were imaginary, and that being ‘sent on a snipe hunt’ was nothing more than a poetic description for an impossible mission.

Then, I met this creature probing the mud along an isolated refuge road.

Wilson’s Snipe at the Brazoria refuge

While searching among images of sandpipers and dowitchers in an attempt to identify the bird, I emailed Texas Master Naturalist Shannon Westveer, who came to my rescue. Without hunting at all, I’d captured my first Snipe — or at least its image. Only weeks later, I found my second in a pond at the Brazoria refuge.

Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) breed in our northern states and Canada, then migrate to spend the winter in southern states, as well as in Mexico and Central America. In Texas, the majority are found along the coast and in the blackland prairie region between Waco and the Red River.

The birds prefer the soft soils of moist or wet places, and often are found in harvested rice fields, rain-soaked prairies, or low-lying areas along bayous, creeks, and ponds. Long legs allow them to navigate shallow water, while  long bills allow them to probe for worms, insect larvae, and other invertebrate prey. Their bill’s tip is flexible; because it can open to grasp food while the base remains closed, they can ingest small prey from the mud without having to remove their bill from the soil.

Wilson’s Snipe foraging in a shallow freshwater pond

During courtship, males ‘dancing’ in the sky create a distinctive, winnowing sound as air passes over specially modified outer tail feathers. When flushed, the bird’s call  is equally remarkable. Now that I’ve heard the sounds on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, I know that I’ve heard them in the field. The next time I hear such a call, I’ll look around for a snipe, hunting.


Comments always are welcome.

69 thoughts on “Snipe, Hunting

  1. I had a similar experience at summer camp and thought snipes were imaginary creatures until I discovered them in a bird book. I’ve yet to see one in person, or at least know I was seeing one, but I’ve heard that call when I’ve been down in your part of the world. It’s good to know what it was.

    1. That’s one reason the change from ‘bird-watching’ to ‘birding’ was so good. Using our ears to find and identify birds works when they’re hidden away somewhere, and the Macaulay Library of bird recordings even allows identifying by call and song. Technology can be a pain at times, but it certainly has wrought some marvels.

    1. In a way, it was even more fun finding the second snipe, since I recognized it. They’re really attractive birds — fast, too. They fly a bit erratically, and up to 60 mph!

  2. How cool! I had no idea snipe were real things. Thanks for educating me, Linda. Sorry about Little Linda’s experience with summer camp — you’d have fooled them all if you’d found this guy then!

    1. I’d occasionally hear the phrase “snipe hunt” over the years, and somewhere along the way I figured out that they were a bird, but they still seemed somewhat mythical. I certainly never imagined I’d actually see one. As for that camp snipe hunt, it wasn’t very traumatic. Given a choice between a snipe hunt and a short-sheeted bed, I’ll take the hunt.

  3. I grinned to myself when I saw the title and the term “snipe” in it–I was pretty sure I knew where you were headed and thought: There are snipes!!

    Lovely shots and the information about the mating flight ‘song’ is fascinating.

    1. Clearly, the snipe hunt’s a more widely-spread phenomenon than I realized. I’m just happy I found these. When I took the photos of the first, I’d stopped on the road to watch some grebes. They were too far away for a decent shot, but as I was pulling away, I noticed that what I’d thought was a clump of grasses and mud was moving. It was the snipe, enjoying a late lunch!

      1. Interestingly, just today on a FB’s Master Naturalist post, a memver posted a photo of a snipe along Lady Bird lake. Sunday is snipe day. :)

  4. Count me among the adolescents snipe hunters… Had I only known then what I do now I could have shut down the laughter with the explanation that it really wasn’t “snipe season” after all.

    1. As Grandma used to say, “So soon old, so late smart.” I was curious about the actual season, and found it began November 7 and runs to February 21. It’s interesting that the snipe and the woodcock are the only shore birds that can be hunted; their populations are stable, but the daily bag/possession limits still are low.

      1. Do you think the fact that so many remember”snipe hunting” might have something to do with there actually being a hunting season?

        1. Maybe, especially if you combine that with the fact that they’re a hard target. <strong.This article has some fascinating details about how to find the birds, and how hard it can be to bag a few. I especially liked this: “If you can shoot a snipe, you probably can shoot just about anything else that flies. Consistently harvesting snipe without going through a case of No. 8s will make teal look like slow-flying barn doors.”

    1. Lucky, for sure. Having them within such close range was even better. It not only made for better photos, it helped with identification, too. Shorebirds and sparrows flummox me!

  5. As a young physician, my father tried his hand at being a country doctor in South Dakota. This would have been the 1950s. My mother actually grew up there, but in the “big city” of Sioux Falls. The village where my parents lived tried to be welcoming, which is how my father had his one and only experience with duck hunting. Afterwards, he told my mother: “We’re going back to Brooklyn.” We are not a hunting family, though we’ve done a bit of fishing on occasion.

    1. If I were to do any hunting, it certainly wouldn’t be duck hunting. I’ve seen guys coming in from the blinds, and heard the stories. They always wax pretty darned enthusiastic about their dogs and the birds that land on the grill, but the cold and mud don’t seem very attractive to me. My own dad stuck with pheasant hunting; a snowy Iowa cornfield isn’t the worst thing in the world.

      I suspect your parents’ experience in rural South Dakota would have been similar in some ways to my years in rural south Texas. I still have a story about flounder gigging to tell, if I can gather the courage to tell on myself.

  6. You did well in getting such close portraits.

    I’m puzzled as to how the snipe could get passed off as a non-existent bird when it exists, with the English word snipe going back at least 600 years.

    1. The first was taken on the auto route, not so very far past the spot where you photographed the cormorant. The second was taken from the boardwalk over the pond. I was lucky that both birds were close enough to suit my lens.

      I suspect that, in the case of ‘snipe hunts’ at camps and such, a combination of ignorance and gullibility are involved. When I moved to the country, there were a few times when my own misunderstandings resulted in embarassment for me and amusement for others, even though no snipe were involved. I’d forgotten that I told the story of the cattle guards; I may have to repost that one.

  7. This is one I did know about. After seeing the episode of “Cheers” where the guys send Frasier out in the woods on a snipe hunt, I just had to look up the bird!!

    1. I found it! The title of the episode is “The Heart is a Lonely Snipe Hunter,” and it’s available on Netflix. I’m going to look it up and watch it. The synopsis says Diane wasn’t very pleased when she found out what the guys had done, but she didn’t want them to tell Frasier they’d played a trick on him, either.

      If you saw that episode when it first aired, it would have been — 1985. Good grief.

    1. I never would have imagined you as a gullible person, Ellen. Of course, the thing about a snipe hunt is that it only works once. First year campers fall for it, and then, by the second year, they’re the perpetrators.

  8. Congratulations on finding your mystery birds, Linda. You will have to come here during migration when it is common. At times I could show you twenty in a group. Always a great bird to see.

    1. After looking at the maps, it’s clear I need to travel a bit to witness the mating rituals, and hear that ‘winnowing’ sound. Have you experienced that? I suspect so. Seeing a group of these attractive and interesting birds certainly would be a treat.

  9. I visited a bird sanctuary near a friend’s place last week and was astonished to read that in that sanctuary birds were resting and feeding after a flight of 11 000 kilometers during 8 days. They would start at the beginning of the coming European winter from East Russia and fly via China, Asia and then Australia to this sanctuary I had the privilege of visiting.

    And we think that going to the moon is an extraordinary feat!

    1. Migrations are fascinating, and in some cases nearly unbelievable. I’ve been enjoying migrant American robins recently. They’re short-range travelers for the most part, butthey often don’t make it into our area, so they’re fun to see when they do show up.

      It’s good to hear that you’re getting out and about yourself. I hope the garden’s still doing well in your absences.

  10. I have been both the victim of and the perpetrator of snipe hunts, Linda. We have snipes in Oregon as well, and sad to say, they are actually hunted during season. There is a bag limit of 8 per day. –Curt

    1. That’s the same bag limit as ours; the possession limit here is twenty-four. It’s interesting that the snipe and the woodcock are the only shorebirds that can be legally hunted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; they’re legal in every state except Hawaii. The population is stable at around two million, and the average annual harvest in the past few years has been about 105,000. From what I’ve read, snipe aren’t your typical ‘sitting duck.’ Hunters seem to agree that they’re an especially difficult target because of their erratic flight patterns.

      I couldn’t help thinking that there are certain similarities between snipe and those treks that you led — particularly the ‘erratic flight patterns’ of some of your participants!

      1. Good information, Linda.
        As for the comparison, it’s great if someone is shooting at you. Not so much when you are trying to get an unruly bunch from point A to point B. :) –Curt

  11. Oh you got excellent shots! I’ve never seen one. I’ve been on the lookout for woodcocks, a related bird, for years, with 0 success. Never saw one. Pheasants, turkey, quail, yes, but woodcocks, never.
    And finally decided they were just legends, too, and then this fall, I stepped off a walking path not far from my house, and one took off from right under my feet! This snipe has really handsome feathers.

    1. While doing a little reading about the snipe, I learned that snipes and woodcocks are the only shorebirds that can be legally hunted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. I also learned that they’re hard targets, partly because they camouflage so well, and partly because they’re fast, erratic flyers.

      I almost confused the bird in the first photo with a lump of grass and mud. Those feathers are handsome, once you realize you’re looking at feathers. Like your encounter with the woodcock, my spotting the snipe was pure serendipity.

    1. Now that I’ve heard the call, I know I’ve heard it before — not the ‘winnowing’ sound, but the scaipe when they fly. I may have scared a few up without knowing it. I’m going to have to listen more closely when I’m in territory that would suit them.

  12. Isn’t the Snipe in Alice in Wonderland? I knew about the birds before the mythical creature and yours are certainly handsome specimens. I love their calls. Sometimes they hang out at Dyke Marsh and Huntley Meadows, but not for long, I think. Probably when they’re going farther south.

    1. I couldn’t find any mention of a snipe in Alice in Wonderland, but Lewis Carroll did write “The Hunting of the Snark,” a nonsense poem in the style of “Jabberwocky.” The snipe showed up later in a 1944 Disney production called “The Pelican and the Snipe,” which seems to be a bit of a mashup of several Lewis Carroll themes.

      It’s interesting that both ‘snark’ and ‘snipe’ are common words today; I suspect many people who use them don’t know the bird or Lewis Carroll.

  13. The shot with the blue sky reflection is wonderful. I see the Cheers episode has been noted. I kept shouting at the TV “they ARE real!” I always wondered how many others did the same just like I always wondered if lots of folks believed Tinker Bell would recover.

    1. I was happy with the blue sky reflection myself — and with the reflection of the underside of the bird. Both photos were taken in November, when pond levels were down a bit. Since snipes don’t like deep water, I suspect the bird in the blue sky photo is about at the limit of its prime wading territory.

      I’d forgotten Tinker Bell, but I wasn’t much of a Peter Pan fan as a kid, anyway. Now, Fantasia? I’m there! Granted, the bucket carrying brooms were a little creepy, but what kid doesn’t like creepy?

    1. And that’s akin to phoning someone and asking, “Is your refrigerator running?” If the answer is yes, the obvious response was, “Well, you’d better go catch it.” Also, for a shopkeeper: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” “Why won’t you let him out?” It’s a very gentle sort of hazing, and great fun for the perpetrators.

      Was the zoo accustomed to such calls?

  14. Great photographs! One of the birds we used to see (or more likely hear) where I was brought up. (A moorland area in the north of Scotland.) They make a very odd sound!

    1. Did you have woodcocks, too? That’s another bird I’ve never seen. In fact, if asked, I would have associated it with Britain rather than with the U.S. It may not be entirely true, but it seems to me that the most reclusive birds have the most remarkable sounds. The bittern is another. Maybe they need those odd calls to find one another.

      1. Yes, we do have woodcocks – though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. There’s a resident population of woodcocks in Britain that is sadly in decline and there are woodcocks which come over from Scandinavia to overwinter here. There are bitterns in the UK too – happily they are increasing in numbers after being very few.

    1. Snipe and sandpipers are quite different birds. A Wilson’s (or common) snipe wouldn’t be on the beach, unless it was seriously lost. The snipe like mud, and all of the earthworms, grubs, and such that live there. The snipes are much larger than sandpipers, too. Beyond that, I can’t tell you much about shorebirds, because when it comes to the sandpipers and plovers, I have a terrible time sorting them out. Thank goodness the pelicans and gulls are easily recognizable.

    1. One of the articles I read about the snipe remarked about that ‘sewing machine’ effect — how the patterns of holes they leave as they probe for insects look just like stitching. I thought it was an interesting clue to their presence, too. The article said that a patch of pencil-sized holes in the mud is a good indication that snipe have been around.

    1. The thing about a snipe hunt is that you only get tricked into it once. Then, you switch sides and become one of the perpetrators. The ‘snipe hunt’ is fun, but discovering a real snipe was even better.

  15. Well, now I know what one looks like! I keep meaning to look them up and there you did it for me and probably with far more lovely photos! My parents told me about snipe hunts long ago and back when I was probably high school age I was part of a band who took my little cousins out in the woods to hunt (led by another, older cousin’s friend). We were at the lake so there were plenty of woods and it was dark and such fun! I’m not so sure she thought it was as fun as we did — I’ll have to ask her! But this not only taught me a few things but brought back some wonderful memories!

    1. It’s been such fun to read others’ memories of snipe hunts; I’m glad to add yours to the collection. Being able to introduce some cousins to the ‘hunt’ would have been special. Whether it was more or less scary because you were family probably would be up for debate, though. I found a few details about snipe in Michigan here. I noticed that they mentioned walking along wet ditches as one place to find the bird. You might have a chance to see the real thing. They arrive about mid-April.

  16. I wonder how the etymology of “sniper” figures into the bird. English tends to multitask its words something fierce. “Snipe can be a bird or a cutting remark, or what a sniper does.”

    1. The Online Etymology Dictionary says a sniper is “one who shoots from a hidden place,” and says it’s an agent noun formed from the verb ‘snipe.’ Wiki adds that the verb originated in the 1770s among soldiers in British India; it referred to shooting snipes, which were considered challenging game birds due to their alertness, camouflage, and erratic flight behavior. Birders and hunters alike certainly agree on the nature of the birds!

  17. A bunch of kids in the middle of the night are easily influenced. I am a veteran snipe hunter – both as “victim” and “instigator”! It made a great initiation rite for whatever group one was attempting to join.

    As a beginning birder, about a hundred years ago, I began to believe these long-billed feathered balls were mythical after all. Finding the first one was exhilarating! As has been sighting each one since then.

    Just snapped a photo last week of one just at sunset. Fabulous birds!

    1. Given your sense of humor, I suspect you really enjoyed being the instigator, and probably enjoyed being tricked, too — at least in retrospect! Things like snipe hunts are great bonding experiences, which probably explains why they’re so popular at camps.

      “Long-billed feathered balls” is a perfect description. A couple of the articles I read talked about the large breasts they have, and how that gives them that plump, ball-like profile. They sure are cute. I hope I get to see another one some day.

  18. After learning from a naturalist how to effectively flush snipe (and woodcock) from suitable habitats, you can’t keep me out of the mucky woods!! It’s positively exhilarating when a bird flies right up your shirt when you don’t expect. These guys stay very still and are well-camouflaged … until you’re right on top of them and BAM! Be surprised. Glad to have been of some ID help. Nice to see your lovely post today, Linda. Be well.

    1. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to flush one. These were “just there,” as though they’d gotten the memo that an inexperienced human was poking around and might enjoy having a sight of them. The day I found the snipe in the second photo, I also came across a bittern. He was fairly well camouflaged among the reeds and my photos are pretty cluttered, but I was astonished when I first saw him He looked like a volleyball! His body was so enlarged and round that even his neck seemed to have disappeared. I read that they do that during mating season, but November seemed a little late for that. It was a cool experience, no question.

  19. A brief search through my foggy memory has dredged up an episode of Spin & Marty (on Mickey Mouse Club) that featured a snipe hunt. I see that memory still serves, and it was aired on November 20, 1955. There are a number of references to it via Google, but I don’t have time to look deeper for a free YouTube link. Thanks for the memory! BTW, I’ve seen woodcocks in our woods in Minnesota.

    1. The only way to view the episode seems to be through the Disney site. So many corporations are buying up the rights to so much, a lot is disappearing from YouTube. Apple bought the rights to the various Charlie Brown specials, for example, and Disney has removed such gems as Peter Pan and Dumbo from their offerings because they’re now considered “offensive.” There are a few DVD’s I’ve purchased precisely because I suspect they may be removed from online availability.

      I had forgotten Spin and Marty, although I was a great fan of the Mickey Mouse Club. It’s fun to know they went snipe hunting, too.

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