Daily Bird: Wilson’s Snipe
Wilson’s Snipe are starting to show up in Connecticut. These game birds are cryptically and physically similar to American Woodcock but they are readily distinguishable by a head-striping pattern opposite that of Woodcock: longitudinal rather than latitudinal.
More helpfully for ID purposes, the snipe prefers muddy edges of streams and ponds rather than forest openings as used by woodcock.
As they probe in the mud they can sense prey with the tip of their bill (or “snout,” which became “snite,” which became “snipe”). With eyes set so far back, they can see behind them while the bill is buried in the mud. That’s why our view of them is usually of a fleeting zigzag of a stripy brown bird: they see us coming long before we see them. But even that view is a rewarding one to birders.
When flushed, Snipe zigzag horizontally with raspy “skaip” alarm calls (woodcock tend to zigzag straight up through branches). Look also for the whitish belly of the snipe, compared to the rufous underside of the woodcock.
In Connecticut, Wilson’s Snipe are generally found along Connecticut’s river valleys, inland lake shores, and Long Island Sound coast. Check wet farm fields and sedge meadows, usually bordering a stream or wet swale. They prefer close cropped vegetation, so wet farm fields that are mowed at least annually or are grazed by livestock provide suitable habitat.
A good tip from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World is that “In spring, [Wilson’s Snipe] migrates primarily on southerly winds after warm fronts, in fall mostly after cold fronts. Migrates on moonlit nights.”
Where to look
The former Nyala Farm site, now corporate office complex: In Westport on Greens Farms Road just off the Sherwood Island Connector, a wet swale running through a regularly mowed field is an annual stopover in Spring. Scope the grass clumps and water edges near the antique well cover, but only from Greens Farms Road: straying into the field (from personal experience) draws immediate response from site security.
Horsebarn Hill at the UConn Storrs campus: Well covered by local birders, Horsebarn Hill records good numbers of Wilson’s Snipe in spring and fall migrations. The birds can be seen from several vantage points on Horsebarn Hill Road that circles the hill.
Sand Bank Road, Watertown: A very reliable location. Study the wet grassy areas along Hop Brook.
Although it nests occasionally as nearby as western Massachusetts, there are no recent breeding records in Connecticut; northern New England is essentially the southern edge of its breeding range. Because they do not nest in Connecticut, Wilson’s Snipe cannot be located by watching and listening for lekking displays, as we do with woodcock.
Until recently, Wilson’s Snipe were considered a subspecies of the Common Snipe, which ranges over northern Europe and northern Asia. Common Snipe are occasionally found on the western islands of Alaska.
Conservation status: Like many wetland-dependent species, loss of wetlands habitat has historically affected populations, as has excessive hunting. The continuing loss of maintained farmlands along migration routes, including in Connecticut, could likely affect this species, and consequently opportunities for observation in our state. While it is still hunted, there does not appear to be a consensus on the effect of hunting on populations; however, the species is not currently considered threatened or endangered.