Friday, March 2, 2018

Wilson's Snipes in the Valley's Late-winter Wetlands

The protected wetlands of the Great Central Valley are teeming with life at present, but the great abundance of avifauna won't last much longer.  I was able to sneak in a few hours of birding at Merced NWR between rainstorms this week, and can report that the tens of thousands of overwintering ducks, geese, and Sandhill Cranes are still around.  But many will be heading back to their northerly breeding grounds very soon.  The majestic Sandhill Cranes will be nearly all gone by the end of March, and once again we will await their return in September.

In the wetlands, signs of spring are in the air.  Grasses, tules and cattails are turning green and putting on abundant new growth.  Marsh wrens are chattering away as they busily go about building their nests.  A Burrowing Owl sits outside its burrow enjoying a day of sunshine, while nearby a Great Horned Owl is already sitting on her nest.  (Think of her, sitting there in the top of a leafless tree in all that rain yesterday!)  The ducks are sporting their fine breeding plumage and the geese mill about by the thousands in giant murmuring flocks, awaiting the right moment to fly north.

And, if you turn a perceptive gaze to the marshy edges, where browned mats of reeds gather along muddy banks, you might spot one of the wetlands' less conspicuous inhabitants: Wilson's Snipe.

The Wilson's Snipe is found across nearly the entire North American continent, yet many people are entirely unaware of its existence! 

Wilson's Snipes breed across northern North America (Alaska, Canada and the northern United States, from Washington all the way east to Maine) and some remain in Northwestern states year-round; barcharts indicate that a few stick around the San Joaquin Valley through the summer (where habitat can be found).  Snipes rely on wet, marshy areas for food and shelter; wetlands, pond edges, wet meadows, even irrigated pastures will do.  Nests are placed on the ground near water.  They prefer areas of short vegetation, though some cover is required for shelter from predators.  Wilson's Snipes rely heavily on their excellent camouflage, and often I find I have been looking at a spot for a minute or more before I see the first snipe... then realize there are several more right beside it!

Four snipes in their typical day-time resting pose along a wetland edge.

Small but chunky, these round, doe-eyed sandpipers appear placid, quiet, and calm - until you accidentally flush one from its hiding place!  With an enormous burst of heart-stopping energy, a startled Wilson's Snipe explodes upwards from its cover and flies off with its characteristic zigzag flight pattern.  It's hard to say who is more startled by these encounters, the birder or the bird!

Wilson's Snipes generally spend their daytime hours dozing in a protected spot, feeding most commonly at dawn and dusk.  Snipes use their long, sensitive bills to probe for invertebrates in wet soil.  Prey items include insect larvae, worms, crustaceans and mollusks, which they are able to eat without withdrawing their bills from the mud. 

Wilson's Snipes are entirely dependent on wetlands for their survival, and the extensive draining of wetlands has surely taken its toll on snipe numbers; however, their populations appear to be stable, probably due to their widespread range and adaptability to a number of wet habitats.

If you haven't visited the wetlands yet this winter, you still have time!  March and April are beautiful months to explore the Great Central Valley's remaining areas of grassland and wetland..

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