Birds of Chignik Lake: Wilson’s Snipe – Ghostly Sound of Spring

Not an easy capture, finally getting a decent portrait of a Wilson’s Snipe represented a culmination of persistence, patience and study. I made this photograph in a a marshy area in the middle of our village. It is probable that these secretive birds nest in this area. (Chignik Lake, June 4, 2019)

By mid to late March, as evening twilight envelopes the Chignik Lake landscape, an otherworldly sound can be heard – one which no doubt has frightened the bejeezus out of more than one young camper whose head might have been stuffed with ghost stories around the campfire.

Winnowing snipe. At an air speed of about 25 miles an hour, air passing through the snipe’s rectrices (outermost tail feathers) creates some of the strangest avian music in North America.* (Click the highlighted text to listen.)

Migration. Wilson’s Snipe departing Point Hope, Alaska, August 25, 2018.

Country jokes involving nighttime forays into dark forests with flashlights and burlap bags aside, snipe hunts, these are fascinating birds. Grouped along with yellowlegs and tattlers as shorebirds, their more chunky appearance is owing to impressively large breast muscles. These muscles -prized by hunters as a delicacy – enable snipe to achieve astounding aerial speeds of over 60 miles per hour.

We had consistently flushed a snipe from edge habitat on hikes through a corner of the berry bog. Assuming the bird was a nesting hen, we avoided lingering in the area. Then, in early May, we happened upon this egg shell near where we’d been encountering the snipe. The early fireweed shoot in the foreground (lower right) tells the tale of a species that arrives in The Chigniks early, fledges its young, and departs before summer’s end. (Chignik Lake, May 4, 2019)

With a sharp eye, you might find an old nest – a subtle, grass-lined depression about the same size as your hands placed side by side. Only the hen broods the clutch of four mottled brown, sharply-pointed eggs. Chicks hatch out in less than three weeks and almost immediately leave the nest, downy little ping-pong balls perfectly capable of scurrying along after their mother as she hunts for insects and worms. Her bill is equipped with sensory receptors enabling her to probe deep into marsh and muck to feel for whatever might be available there. In fact, she can even move the flexible tip of her upper bill to grasp and pull in small invertebrates.

The berry bog drains into an almost Everglades-like grassy marsh where shallow water flows through wild violets, cottongrass, irises and other flowers. It’s a favorite feeding ground of both snipe and cranes. (Chignik Lake, June 2, 2019)

Apparently snipe sleep quite a bit during the day, so the best time to see them going about their business is in early morning and again in the evening. Because their eyes are set far back on their heads, they have nearly a 360 degree field of vision, making them difficult to approach. A good strategy for observing them is to locate a place they are frequenting and then, armed with binoculars, conceal yourself and wait quietly. They’ll occasionally perch on posts or trees and yelp, producing a call almost like that of a hen turkey.

Before the fall hunting season opens in September, the last of the Chignik’s snipe are long departed. They’ll overwinter in marshes and wetlands further south, and sometime in March head north to the Alaska Peninsula again, bringing with them another sound of spring.

Wilson’s Snipe Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Wilson’s Snipe Gallinago delicata
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Gallinago: New Latin for snipe or woodcock: gallina = hen + ago = resembling: 
delicata: Latin – dainty

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common mid-Spring through late Summer

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common in the Watershed (listed as Common Snipe)

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Common in Spring and Summer; Uncommon in Fall; Absent in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Wandering Tattler – Sojourner from Far North Mountain Streams to Tropical Pacific Islands

Next Article: Mew Gull – The Gull of The Lake

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

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