Blane Klemek column for April 4: Woodcock, snipe are a delight to see and hear
There are two closely related species of shorebird that I especially enjoy observing and listening to. Though the birds look similar and are sometimes difficult to tell apart if you're not familiar with either, these unlikely of shorebirds -- American woodcock and common snipe -- are widespread, seasonal Minnesota avian residents worthy of a closer look.
I first became acquainted with the common snipe when I was a young boy growing up on the farm. During early spring, I would frequently steal away after chores to explore our fields and woodlands. I remember watching and listening to male snipes perform their aerial courtship displays, but at the time I had no idea what kind of birds they were, let alone what they were doing or how they made such interesting sounds.
Both species of birds, the woodcock and snipe, are known to put on air shows that are as pleasing to observe as they are to hear. Birds of both species possess special feathers that produce their respective and unique sounds, although the feathers responsible are different in each species. I'll discuss more about these birds' aerial antics later -- but first, a little more about what they look like.
At first glance, these two shorebirds are rather strange looking. Each species are squat, somewhat rotund birds with short, stout legs. To compare, the majority of shorebirds aren't anywhere near as stocky looking, and most have much longer legs. That withstanding, like some shorebirds -- such as dowitchers, godwits, whimbrels and curlews -- woodcock and snipe have impossibly long beaks.
The birds of each species are about 10-12 inches long from the tips of their beaks to the tips of their very short and stubby tails. And both species' beaks account for more than a quarter of the bird's total length. Additionally, each of the species are short-winged and cryptically patterned.
Both are also secretive, solitary birds. With the exception of spring and fall migration and the breeding season, it's rare to flush more than one of each of these species at a time.
The two shorebirds are also unique in that they are the only two members of their respective genera -- Scolopax (woodcock) and Gallinago (snipe). Aside from this taxonomic difference, a few physical differences exist as well. Woodcocks have larger eyes that are set higher and farther back on their heads than those of snipes.
It is believed that the oversized eyes of woodcock evolved as foraging and predator evasion adaptations -- large eyes for a nocturnal lifestyle for one reason, and, secondly, for increased sightability as they probe deeply into moist soils with their long beaks for insects and worms. Eyes that were positioned, say, lower on the woodcock's head, would have posed problematic for a bird that relies on its vision to procure food and detect danger.
But perhaps the most fascinating of the woodcock's many and appealing attributes is what happens when the male of the species returns to its breeding range in early spring. Here in northern Minnesota, that can be as early as mid-March.
Male woodcocks "set up shop," so to speak, in forest openings and fields near dense woods. In these areas called "singing grounds," the males will aggressively defend their territory from other male woodcock. And it is within these places that they perform their amazing courtship flight displays to attract females.
Beginning every day during the breeding season for about 30 to 60 minutes at both dawn and dusk, the performance is both musical and spectacular. The male starts by "peenting," as it's called, from the ground, which is a nasal sounding vocalization produced from its throat. After numerous peents, the male abruptly departs into the sky.
Special outer primary wing feathers produce a twittering noise as the male woodcock's flight carries him 100 to 300 feet above his singing ground. At the apex of the flight, he begins a corkscrew descent, creating a wonderfully musical, bubbly, chirping and warbling song from these same feathers until, just moments before landing, he quits and glides to nearly the very spot he departed from only moments before. Almost immediately he begins his series of peents again.
The flight, lasting about one minute, is repeated continuously until full daylight or darkness overcomes the woodland. If a hen woodcock happens to approve of a particular male's display, she will enter the territory of her chosen mate, where copulation will soon follow.
With respect to common snipe, and not far from the forested coverts that American woodcock inhabit, male snipe have solidly booked the airspace above wetland habitats almost everywhere. Like their relatives the woodcock, male snipe performances are more often heard than seen. However, unlike woodcock, snipe courtship displays frequently occur throughout the day, but typically are most intense at dawn and dusk.
After the male snipe flies to great heights in the sky, often reaching altitudes comparable to male woodcock, he suddenly enters into steep and speedy dives while beating his wings. Though sounding vocal like that of the woodcock song, the somewhat hollow and whistled ascending song of the common snipe is also produced by air rushing through special feathers.
With male snipe, the interesting sounding whistle is actually created as air flows over his spread-out, specially modified outer tail feathers. The thin and curved outermost feathers of the male snipe's tail are responsible for this delightful courtship song of spring. And, as hen woodcock do when male woodcock perform their aerial displays, the performances of male snipe are closely monitored by prospective mates as well.
Indeed, American woodcock and common snipe have once again returned to the forests and fields throughout northern Minnesota. Seeing and hearing them is well worth our time as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.