Monday, April 06, 2009

Snipe Hunt

If you attended summer camp as a youth, you may well be familiar with the "snipe hunt," a popular prank. New campers are taken into the woods and hold flashlights up to bags, waiting for the elusive snipe--a bird that allegedly is attracted to light and thus will fly into the bag.

Of course, the snipe never shows and the newbies stand around in the dark woods, left holding the bag. By the time they figure it out, they are likely lost and confused. Meanwhile, back in camp, everyone else is enjoying a big laugh.

When the new campers return, they learn the snipe is a mythical bird that doesn't exist.

Except it does. No, this isn't a belated April Fools joke and no, snipe don't fly into bags at night.

Snipe, which include 20 species around the world, are characterized by their long slender bill and mottled feathers. They're a common bird in wetland areas. The Wilson's snipe is common in Idaho, and now is the perfect time to catch their spring courtship display.

During their courtship, male snipe make a sound that is called winnowing--a term allegedly coined by Henry David Thoreau. It's been described as an eerie flute or a rapid whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop. (Listen).

It sounds like a call, but this sound isn't produced vocally.

The male snipe has modified tail feathers, which are fanned out in the air. The male does a "power dive" and the sound is produced by the tail feathers vibrating.

You are most likely to hear this at dawn and dusk, when snipe can be difficult to spot in the air. But I have heard winnowing throughout the day, and you can see the birds in their dramatic dives by following the sound.

Where to experience winnowing snipe: Any wet, open area along rivers and streams, like the meadows around Silver Creek and the Pahsimeroi Valley. Any wetland area is also a good bet--try the Kootenai Valley, the Weiser area or Thousand Springs. --Matt Miller
Photos by Tom Grey of Tom Grey's Bird Pictures.

No comments: