Snipe and Woodcock

 

(This 1150th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 7, 2013.)

 

When I was a youngster, to me March and April were distressful months. I couldn't wait until "real" birding would begin with the return of the land bird migrants. Of course, a few species had already shown up: robins, grackles, killdeer, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, song and white-throated sparrows, but they weren't especially exciting.

 

I soon learned, however, that these months too can be entertaining. And in particular two birds can be found at this time but rarely at any other. Those birds are the common snipe and the American woodcock.

 

At that time my Rochester backyard was bounded by extensive open fields, hundreds of acres of grassland that are gone today. Standing at the edge of that vast meadow in late March I heard a strange, rapid "who-who-who-who-who-who-who..." sound. It seemed to go on forever and it sounded as though it came from high above those fields.

 

Finally with binoculars I found the source. It was a bird flying at least a hundred yards high. All I could make out was its fluttering pointed wings.

 

I called my friend Howard Miller to ask for identification help. "That's a Wilson's snipe," Howard told me, "and that winnowing is the sound made by the motion of its outer tail feathers during its courtship flight." (The name has since been changed to common snipe.)

 

A boy scout at the time, all I knew about snipes was a camp prank sending some foolish tenderfoot out in the night after them armed with a spear and a banana. Now I could tell my friends that there really was such a bird and that I had seen it. I never could convince them, however, that I wasn't simply extending the joke.

 

It was much later when I had my first look at a snipe, a squat, robin-sized fatso, mostly brown with a long bill. It was so well camouflaged that it was almost impossible to observe. I rarely see more than one or two a year and those only during their fall migration.

 

Even more exciting at this time of year is a woodland inhabitant, the American woodcock or, as it is colloquially known, the timberdoodle.

 

One April evening last year Chris Hollister and I visited the Tillman Preserve in Clarence to seek one of these birds. We must have walked a mile without success. But when we had given up and were returning to our car, we heard the high-pitched twittering made by the woodcock's wings as it rose in its strange courtship display. Then we heard it drop rapidly emitting even louder chirps. And finally, we listened to its very different Bronx cheer-like "pzznt" call from its so-called singing ground where it landed to display for its mate.

 

Birdwatchers armed with flashlights often listen for these flight take-offs and rush up to within a few yards of their origin. Then when the timberdoodle returns, they turn on the light and watch the bird's display antics. An intervening fence prevented us from doing this. A good time for this is when the moon is out and nearly full. On those nights the woodcock sometimes continues his flights through the night. (Unfortunately, this year the moon won't be full again until April 25th.)

 

Although the woodcock's coloration differs significantly from that of the snipe, they appear quite similar hidden on the ground. The woodcock too is squat and brown-backed and its bill is equally long. Both birds have flexible bill-tips that help them probe the earth for worms and other insects.

 

Both snipe and woodcock are game birds with fall hunting seasons but their erratic flight makes them a challenge. I once went along with two Alabama relatives hunting quail and woodcock. Mistake. When their dog put up a bird and they swung those guns around to follow its flight I hit the dirt. I can understand Harry Whittington's experience hunting with Dick Cheney. I stuck it out that day but have not accepted more recent invitations.

 

Despite serious woodcock population declines in recent years, due more to loss of habitat than hunting pressure, this delightful bird remains rather common in this region. It is so rarely seen simply because of its shy and reclusive habits -- except, that is, in April.-- Gerry Rising