Sanderling feeding in shallow water
Wilson's snipe A Wilson's snipe searches for food in a wetland. © Glen Golson, Jr./Creative Commons

Stories in Kansas

Wilson's Snipe

November 2018 Shorebird of the Month

Robert Penner stands with crossed arms, looking to his left and laughing.

Rob has worked as The Nature Conservancy’s Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve Manager for 22 years, increasing habitat for migrating shorebirds and nesting grassland birds at the world-renowned wetland.

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The Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata) is likely under-recordered during the International Shorebird Survey (ISS), perhaps the most important field survey documenting shorebirds and wetlands. The ISS follows an established route along the road system, so only birds seen from the road are recorded. For the more secretive birds like Wilson's snipe, that means they often aren't recorded. 

I usually see more Wilson's snipe while working in the grasslands at Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve than when I am conducting the ISS survey. It's also somewhat of what I call a boom-or-bust bird: some years there are no snipe recorded at all, and others years it's several dozen.  In 1998, 300 Wilson's snipe were recorded at Cheyenne Bottoms in one day. I sure wish I had been around for that.

Fun Facts

In a word: the military term sniper originiated in the 18th century. A solider able to shoot the elusive game bird was dubbeded a sniper.

Two of a kind: Wilson's snipe is one of only two shorebirds that can be legally hunted in Kansas. (The other is the American woodcock.)

More than one trick: the Wilson's snipe employs many tricks to avoid predation. Brown and beige coloring camoflauges the bird among grass and reeds; they fly in a zig-zag pattern making it difficult for hunters and other animals to catch them; eye placement toward the middle of the head gives the bird a clear sight of what lies both behind and in front; and when the nestlings fledge, the mother takes two babies and the father takes two, splitting up the family.

Charcoal drawing of a Wilson's snipe
Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) Wilson's snipes are one of the most widespread shorebirds in North America but are often under-counted in surveys. © Robert Penner

Habitat & Range

The Wilson’s snipe prefers grassy marshes and wet meadows with dense vegetation. They make some use of very shallow water habitat but typically they do not venture far from thick, low vegetation which hides them from predators.

Non-breeding Wilson's snipes can be found throughout most of the lower 48 United States, Mexico and all of Central America. Those that breed, do so in the northern third of North America - Alaska and nearly all of Canada. There are places in the northwest (Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Oregon and Washington) where Wilson's snipe live year round.

Conservation Status

Low/least concern. The Wilson’s snipe is widespread and overall populations remained stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The global breeding population, which is shared between the U.S. and Canada, is estimated at 2 million individuals. Approximately 105,000 Wilson's snipe were taken annually by hunters between 2006 and 2010 in the U.S. and Canada combined; this number was probably several times higher during the mid-twentieth century. Wilson’s snipes depend on wetlands, and draining or conversion of wetlands is detrimental to the species. Other threats include collisions with radio, TV, and cell towers, and buildings.

Cheyenne Bottoms Area Status

Wilson's snipe have been seen in every month of the year at Cheyenne Bottoms but they are elusive. Look for them in the wet meadows of the preserve, not the deeper pools at the state wildlife area. An uncommon spring migrant, most likely to pass through in April and May; they more rare on the fall trip but still a possible sight September through mid-November. 

 

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Robert Penner stands with crossed arms, looking to his left and laughing.

Rob has worked as The Nature Conservancy’s Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve Manager for 22 years, increasing habitat for migrating shorebirds and nesting grassland birds at the world-renowned wetland.

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