I learned a lot when I was a Boy Scout -- how to build a fire, pitch a tent, paddle a canoe. I also learned about initiation rites. My first night in summer camp some 30 years ago, the older boys sent me to the supply tent for a left-handed smoke shifter. The next night they wanted a sky hook. I came back empty-handed both times.
On the third night they told me to prepare for a snipe hunt. This sounded great. I knew from my field guides that snipes were a type of shore bird, so they couldn't be pulling my leg this time. But when we gathered at dusk and all they had were burlap bags and sticks, I had my doubts.
Wild goose chase: Sure enough, we headed to the woods and the snipe hunt turned into a wild goose chase -- just an excuse to get the tenderfeet lost. When I complained, everyone laughed and said there was no such thing as a snipe. Even today the myth of the snipe hunt persists. Just a few weeks ago my daughter Nora experienced a snipe hunt at her college orientation. She played along,, but she vaguely remembered me speaking of snipe, so she suspected fowl play.
Over the last 30 years I've seen snipe in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, and Mexico. They are shorebirds, kin to woodcock. But unlike timber-doodles, which prefer wet woodlands and bottoms, snipe favor wetter areas on the edges of bogs, swamps, and marshes. Many of the snipe I've seen have been in roadside ditches inundated by spring rains. I've flushed others into their distinctive zig-zag flight pattern while birding wet meadows.
Snipe measure 10 to 12 inches long and are much trimmer than woodcock. A striped head, rusty tail, and otherwise drab brownish-gray markings make snipe fairly easy to identify. .
When to find them: Look for them early or late in the day on mudflats probing the muck for earthworms, insect larva, crayfish, and even small frogs. On the edges of salt water bays and salt marshes, they hunt for small crabs. Spines on the base of the tongue and backward-projecting serrations on the inside of the upper bill help move prey items along the 2.5-inch bill and into the gullet. After digesting a meal, snipe regurgitate small pellets of indigestible parts -- shells, bones, and bits of exoskeleton.
In the spring males establish territories on prime wetlands. They advertise their presence to females with a flight display called winnowing. At dawn and dusk males fly about 300 feet above their territories and then dive toward the earth at speeds approaching 60 mph. Simultaneously the male fans his tail. The air rushing by the outermost tail feathers causes them to vibrate and produces distinctive & quot;woo-woo-woo & quot; sounds that can be heard from as far as a half mile away. This display not only attracts females, it also lets other males know the area is occupied.
She's responsible: The female takes sole responsibility for the nest. She makes a scrape on the ground and lays four eggs, which she incubates for 18 to 20 days. If a predator approaches the nest too closely, the female performs a broken wing act, much like a killdeer, to distract the intruder and lure it away from the nest.
After the eggs hatch, the male helps rear the young. Often the male takes the first two chicks hatched and raises them. The female tends to the two remaining chicks. Both parents drop food on the ground in front of the chicks to get them to eat. In just 10 days the chicks can forage for themselves. Ten days later, they can fly.
Boy Scouts and pranksters notwithstanding, snipes live. They are even classified as a migratory game bird, like woodcock, in many states. In fact, snipe season usually opens this month. So if you're ever invited on a snipe hunt in September, it just might be the real deal.