This week's featured creature is the Wilson's snipe.

I'd been wondering when would be a good time to feature this somewhat elusive creature. However, I saw one in Ada Wednesday, so this week it is!

In the snowy conditions, the bird took flight from a small creek and flew above the road on which I was traveling.

That to me was a sign to feature this winter visitor to Oklahoma sooner rather than later.

The Wilson's snipe was named after famed Scottish-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Many other birds are also named in his honor, including Wilson's storm-petrel, Wilson's plover, Wilson's phalarope and Wilson's warbler.

Now, when I was a kid, some relatives tried to get me to go snipe hunting. These attempted tricks involved either waiting by the water's edge at night while holding a potato sack, to something about sprinkling salt on a snipe's tail.

My memories of all that are not quite 100%, but I do recall their efforts were futile as I was well aware of snipe behavior by then.

Appearance

These chunky shorebirds have bodies which are equivalent in size to that of American robins, minus the long tails (see photo).

Wilson's snipes have very long bills, which are used for probing the mud in search of food.

They are mottled on their backs with various shades of brown, and have three intricately patterned long buffy streaks on their backs. Underparts are white, but breasts and flanks are heavily streaked with brown.

Range

These birds can be found all over Oklahoma -- in the proper habitat, of course -- all through the winter. I can't say for sure when the earliest birds arrive in Oklahoma during fall migration, but the latest I've seen one in the area before spring migration was early May.

Their winter range covers the southern two-thirds of the United States and all the way down to Northern South America.

They nest in the Northern United States, and well up into Canada and Alaska. They also have a permanent range in some Northwestern States.

Habitat

Snipes inhabit ponds, creeks, lakes, roadside ditches and marshes. More in particular, the muddy areas of these habitats.

Food

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Wilson's snipes feed mainly on insect larvae, including crane, deer and horse flies, as well as dragonflies, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, mayflies, ants caddisflies and moths. They also eat earthworms.

A snipe uses its long bill to probe deep into the mud, feeling for prey. The bill has a flexible tip which can open enough to grasp prey while the upper portion of the bill remains closed. The bill can also be used like a straw.

Odds and ends

- According to the Cornell Lab, the word “sniper” originated in the 1770s among British soldiers in India who hunted snipe as game. The birds are still hunted in many countries, including the U.S., though their fast, erratic flight style means they are difficult targets.

- The oldest known Wilson’s snipe was at least 9 years, 3 months old, based on a band recovered from a bird that was shot Canada.

- During spring migration, mostly while on the breeding territory, Wilson's snipes perform spectacular flight displays, during which individuals produce a haunting, tremulous sound (Winnow) with their outspread outer tail feathers, according to the Cornell Lab.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

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