Do you recall the phrase “If you build it, he will come” from the 1989 film Field of Dreams? Well, in the case of the elusive Wilson’s Snipe, we might rephrase it to “If you build it, s/he will stay.” This past spring, the owners of Hedgerow Farm on Mayne Island were mystified by a strangely haunting “Huh huh huh huh” sound echoing across the fields at dusk from the wetland area. This low, winnowing sound is made when snipe are exhibiting their territorial display and is not a song at all, but is produced as the bird makes shallow dives and the air whistles through its outer tail feathers. These feathers are very flexible and when extended perpendicular to the bird’s body, flutter rapidly like a flag in the wind, producing the low whistling sound of the snipe’s display.
This medium-sized, pudgy shorebird is not uncommon, but its elusive nature makes it hard to spot. Over ten years of Christmas Bird counts on Mayne, Wilson’s Snipe have been observed only three times; and during spring and fall, only four times over a twenty year period. All seven sightings were of non-breeding birds spotted near flooded fields, pond margins, brackish marshes and ditch habitats.
A Mayne Island First
This spring we had the first documented breeding record for Wilson’s Snipe, who we hope will become a year-round resident of Mayne Island. This exciting avian event took place at the site of the Mayne Island Conservancy’s wetland restoration project at Hedgerow Farm. In the years before the restoration work, snipe had been seen here during winter but had not used it as a breeding site. Standing water and areas of open ground provided ideal foraging habitat during fall and winter, and the water usually remained unfrozen, another requirement for the snipe. However, in spring and summer the water drained off the shallow areas, and the soil dried out and was used to cultivate hay crops. Drying of the wet areas during spring and summer likely deterred the snipe from choosing this as a nest site.
The restoration work accomplished three vital things to restore the wetland and provide the snipe with a suitable breeding habitat. Firstly, a large area of the site was fenced against grazing animals, and the edges of the wetland previously used for hay production were roughed up to de-compact the soil. The area was then replanted with native shrubs and trees. In the fall of 2020, the farm owners and Conservancy staff constructed a weir to raise the standing water level in the summer to heights that hadn’t been seen in over a century. There is now an increased area of water in the wetland year-round.
Two years later, Hedgerow Farm has seen a substantial increase in amphibians, and the owners say the frogs are louder than ever, their songs reverberating from early spring to summer. Bird populations are also increasing, particularly Red-winged blackbirds and Violet-green swallows. Increasing the water level has created the conditions for Wilson’s Snipe to now breed on Mayne, and the area may become host to other birds such as the Virginia Rail and other duck species in future years. In the words of Hedgerow Farm’s owners: “As the wetland regains its ancient habitat, we are anticipating more such discoveries…all of which make us thrilled that we took this project on.”
A Little More About this Bird
The Wilson’s Snipe has a very long bill—several times the length of its head, and is a rich brown colour with dark stripes on creamy tan plumage. They have stocky legs and a short rusty orange tail. The bird is named after its bill as the word snipe is derived from “snite,” an old form of the word snout. This useful appendage has sensory pits near the tip to detect prey when probing bogs and soggy meadows for invertebrates, which they can extract while moving their heads move up and down like a sewing machine at low speed. Wilson’s Snipe enjoy a varied menu of insect larvae, crane, horse, and deer flies, beetles, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers, ants, mayflies, butterflies, caddis flies, and moths. Other invertebrate prey include snails, crustaceans, and worms, and occasionally if they are very hungry, they may eat lizards, frogs, and small fish. Wilson’s Snipe can swallow small prey without pulling their bills out of the mud.
Snipe are always associated with wet or damp habitats like marshes, ditches, bogs, wet fields and meadows. In nesting areas, these birds are often observed standing on posts, and when startled they explode in a zig-zagging flight. Snipe can be recognised by their assortment of songs and sounds – a sharp “Scaip!” call and a “Chip-a chip-a chip-a” song.
Another extraordinary thing about these birds is their eyesight. Snipe, like many sandpipers, can see 360 degrees around and 180 degrees overhead—all at the same time! With this amazing skill, snipe can sit still and see everything around them in a wide horizontal band without moving their heads. This is why they remain motionless when danger approaches, well aware of what is going on around them. In comparison, human eyes can only focus on a single point, and our limited peripheral vision allows us to see about half of our surroundings—if we hold still. Wilson’s Snipe are strong, fast flyers, reaching speeds of more than 100 km per hour. This is a secretive bird that is not active in the day time unless disturbed, preferring to forage at twilight and dawn.
In spring, male snipe begin the elaborate breeding process with their dramatic circling and diving aerial displays and the accompanying haunting sound produced by their tail feathers. Sometimes females also perform this as part of courtship or to scare off predators and defend their territory.
Snipes nest on the ground close to or surrounded by water, and the female makes several nests before selecting a site. The nest is usually well hidden on the sides by sedges, grass, or sphagnum moss, while willow, alder, or other brush may provide protection from above. The female Wilson’s Snipe makes a shallow depression in moist soil (called a “scrape”), then weaves a lining of coarse grasses to build her nest. She pads the inside with finer grasses to create a more elaborate nest, and adds a few more strands of grass from around the site after she lays each egg. A Wilson’s Snipe with eggs or chicks in her nest may try to distract a predator by feigning injury, fluttering up from the nest and falling to the ground, or flopping on one side and beating her wings.
Conservation and Concerns
Wilson’s Snipe are considered uncommon in our area but there are a few local breeding populations on southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Overall populations remained stable between 1966 and 2014, and the global breeding population, which is shared between the U.S. and Canada, is estimated at 2 million. Approximately 105,000 Wilson’s Snipe were killed each year by hunters between 2006 and 2010 in the U.S. and Canada combined. This number was higher during the mid-twentieth century when snipe hunters were known as “snipers,” a term now used to describe military sharpshooters.
As Wilson’s Snipe depend on wetlands, draining or farming these areas is very detrimental to this species. The use of a Mayne Island wetland by the Wilson’s Snipe as a safe nesting spot is a welcome reminder that we actually can do things that help other species thrive. Take a look around your property—do you have ways that you might encourage some of our animal neighbours to make it their home as well? Snags for cavity-nesting birds, bodies of standing water for swallows and bats, un-mowed grassy areas for snakes? If you would like to learn how to restore your property to encourage native species to thrive there, please contact the Conservancy office to arrange a free consultation.
- Michael Dunn, Executive Director, Mayne Island Conservancy
- What It’s Like to Be a Bird, David Allen Sibley, 2020
- Peterson Field Guide to Birds, 2010
- BC Bird Atlas, Peter J. A. Davidson
- All About Birds, Cornell University