A Wisp of Wilson’s Snipes

On May 15, 2022, while heading down the Black River in Cheboygan County to start our fishing season, a flock of birds came flying toward our boat that I’d never seen before. They were large, and besides being a type of wading bird I had no idea what species.

A flock of some type of fast-moving shore bird flying along the Black River.

Flock getting a little closer.

When the birds landed, they seemed to disappear into the stream bank. Mark and I floated by in our boat and the birds didn’t move a feather.

I didn’t get any good photos, so we turned around, went back up river and floated past them again. They moved only a little as I snapped photos.

Only when I zoomed in did I realize they were snipe. The long, slender, black bill, black eye high on the head, and a pattern that makes them blend into their surrounding were all clues. The snipe found in Michigan are Wilson’s snipe.

It was the first time I’d seen a flock–or wisp–of snipe. And only the second time I’d seen snipe at all. The first was several years prior, and it was a single bird, easy to spot on a fence post.

According to Cornell’s allaboutbirds web site, snipe are amongst the most widespread shorebirds in North America, but not readily seen because of their coloration and secretive lifestyle. The web site said that in the summer, snipe sometimes perch on fence posts, and that they will take off in a fast zig-zag pattern when disturbed. They can reach speeds of 60 mph.

Snipe use their long bills to find aquatic insects and worms. They nest on the ground, and their courtship display is apparently fun to watch, as one of the birds–usually the male– dives and circles over the breeding area. Apparently, the rush of air over his feathers makes a whirring, haunting noise.

Come fall, snipe will head south. The mom snipe takes the younger two babies with her; the dad takes the oder two with him, and they go their separate ways.

I expect if I were to go on a snipe hunt, it would be as successful as the legendary one my dad spoke of when I was little. But I’ll always keep my eyes out for Wilson’s snipe, on fence posts and along stream banks, camera in hand.

(Photo taken June 16, 2019)