Yes, Virginia, there really is such a bird. In addition to the time-honored initiation rite of sending an unsuspecting innocent out into the night with a gunny sack to catch snipe, there is a migratory game bird known as the Wilson's snipe, Gallinago delicata.
It is a short-legged, stocky bird with an extremely long, straight bill, conspicuous striping on the head and back, in variegated tones ranging from buff and dark brown to rust on the tail. It is about 9 to 10 inches in body length.
Snipe are most often heard before they are seen and this is often due to the aerobatic display flight of the male in his attempt to attract a female. Rather than a vocalization, the common sound associated with a courting Snipe, is called winnowing, the quavering noise made as the male makes a sudden steep dive and the wind whistles through his extended outer tail feathers.
This is frequently conducted high over a boggy or marsh area. Mendenhall campground is a good place to hear this display in the early evening during spring. It is a remarkable sound and, once heard, will be remembered.
Most of the year snipe are quiet and secretive, but during breeding season, in addition to the display mentioned above, a territorial flight accompanied by vocalizations is conducted over the breeding ground. Parent birds also become quite vocal when an intruder enters their territory during nesting. They perform distraction displays to lure the predator away from the nest or their young.
On the ground, with their cryptic coloring, snipe often choose to crouch hidden in the tall grass or vegetation until nearly stepped upon, at which time they burst upward and fly off in a zig-zag pattern, making them difficult to follow either with a gun or a pair of binoculars.
Snipe breed all across the continent and winter in the southern United States and farther south. They are most often found in wet, boggy areas where they feed on insects and earthworms, crustaceans, mollusks and a small amount of vegetable matter.
The Wilson's snipe feeds by probing with its bill into the substrate. Its bill is very flexible and sensitive, and this species hunts by feel. The serrations on the bill, and spikes on the tongue, help to move food from the bill-tip to the throat. Fly and beetle larvae are particularly important for this bird. When it eats foods with hard parts, it egests these parts in the form of pellets.
The Snipe makes its nest on the ground, usually in marshland, bogs, grassland or waterside vegetation, concealed in a clump of herbage partly pulled over to hide the nest, which is a shallow hollow lined with grass, about 6 inches in diameter. They breed from mid-April to August, producing one brood and usually laying four eggs. The eggs vary in color from pale green or olive to buff, with brown splotches.
The female does the incubating, beginning with the laying of the third or fourth egg. Incubation is 18 to 20 days. When the nestlings hatch, they are precocial. That is, they are downy and somewhat able to fend for themselves, leaving the nest as soon as their down is dry. Both parents tend to and feed them and, as far as is known, the young eat the same foods as the adults. Interestingly, male and female Wilson's snipe do not alternate parental care, but instead divide the brood, each adult tending half of the young.
When we are out walking in snipe habitat, we should be mindful of where we step and especially where we allow dogs to run freely as they can easily destroy nests or displace breeding birds.
So the next time someone suggests a snipe hunt, don't fall for the gunny sack. Grab your binoculars.
DeAnna MacPhail is secretary of the Juneau Audubon Society and an avid birder. The society's monthly meetings resume in September. For updated bird sightings, check out http://www.juneau-audubon-society.org/