A (Fool) Hardy Wilson’s Snipe

I suspect that most folks aren’t accustomed to seeing a Wilson’s Snipe in a setting like this.


wilson's snipe 6954 ron dudley

 1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

For the past several weeks there’s been a small flock of snipe hanging around a pond at Farmington Bay but as the temperatures dropped and winter began to set in their numbers dwindled.  I believe this may be the last bird left.  Snipes require unfrozen mud in order to probe for food and there’s precious little of that left around here – when this shot was taken yesterday morning it was 12 degrees below zero F and it warmed up very little during the day.



wilson's snipe 6953 ron dudley

  1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

This image gives you a little different perspective on the setting.  The edge of the pond (thus the available mud at the shore) is frozen solid, the snow is thick and frost flowers are growing on the ice of the pond.  These birds typically migrate south following the passage of a cold front so I suspect this snipe may be gone when I arrive at the pond later this morning.

I wish the bird well on its journey.


38 comments to A (Fool) Hardy Wilson’s Snipe

  • Beautiful image. I can’t image even going out in those temps.

  • Sharon Constant

    What a lively and fascinating discussion! Thanks Ron and everyone that contributed. I enjoyed this post immensely–photos, narrative, & comments.

  • William Dove

    I just thought I would throw that out there for the sake of interest. One source claims the Wilson’s has one more pair of tail feathers than the Common and that the sepiration has see-sawed for some time.


  • William Dove

    Some may find this interesting and just another reason for researching info from numerous sources. Sibley’s guide doesn’t list the Wilson Snipe, while the NG does along with the Smithsonian. In checking with a very extensive set of Birds of British Columbia (were I live) the American Ornithologist’s Union in 1957 has removed the Wilson Snipe name and uses the name Common Snipe. Confusing lol or maybe not so lol.


    • Yes, it is confusing, Bill. My Sibley (2000) lists it as “Common” but my 2003 Sibley lists it as “Wilson’s”. Here’s part of what BNA has to say on the subject (they call it Wilson’s):

      “Formerly known as Common Snipe and considered a subspecies of that species for much of twentieth century. Wilson’s Snipe regarded as distinct species by Banks et al. (2002) based on differences in morphology (Tuck 1972) and winnowing display sounds (Thönen 1969, Miller 1996;”

    • It would seem that different birding authorities have different opinions on this bird: Is it a separate species species or merely a sub-species of the Common Snipe? Currently, I am aware that BirdLife International believes it is a sub-species of the Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago delicata), but many other think it is a full species. I believe the debate rages on, however…

  • I do hope that it didn’t leave it’s run too late. Do they often migrate singly though? Does any bird? I have it in my (ignorant) head that it is a largely shared exercise.

    • William Dove

      Some species are basically single migrants while some in flocks.


      • Thank you Bill. You are one of the many I learn from with each and every delightful visit here.

        • William Dove

          What is further interesting is some (raptors) migrate as partial family units, at least part of their migration. Some, of course, are non-migratory as a species and some individuals may not migrate in a given year. We, as humans, are often looking for rules or constant behaviors to help us better understand (or think we do) a species. Often rules are very difficult to come by the more you study a species or even something as broad as a Class. Order or Family.


    • Elephant’s Child, this species is believed to usually migrate in groups at night but apparently that’s only based on the sounds that folks hear as the fly in the dark.

  • Just thought I’d report back that I looked for this bird this morning and it wasn’t in its usual haunts. Maybe it headed for warmer climes or perhaps I just didn’t see it. They can be very difficult to spot.

  • Fabulous shot of a very neat bird! I suppose that the one advantage with this setting (for the birder, at least) is that it must have been relatively easy to spot this bird, for once.

    And how ironic that you posted this photo today: Two days ago (December 8), I saw my very first Wilson’s Snipe here in Vancouver, at Stanley Park’s “artificial wetland” area. I have been birding on and off since 1979, so it’s been a long time coming! We got a great look at it (even though it was in its element and therefore difficult to notice if you were not paying attention). I also got to take many “keeper” shots — I actually posted one such photo on my blog and would like to put up a couple more in the next few days.

  • Bryce Robinson

    What a neat photo Ron. I love seeing birds in a scene that seems counter to their preferred conditions. Certainly tells a story, which is one reason why I love your photography so much.

  • Patty Chadwick

    One of the big New York airports just decided NOT to shoot their winter-visitor snowy owls after all. They were concerned about birds strikes, a legitimate concern, but one with many other possible resolutions. Once again, I think of Dick Harlow’s comments and, with heavy heart, agree with him. The birds got a retrieve THIS time, SO FAR but…..

    • William Dove

      Bird abatement using trained raptors has been one solution that many airports are now going back to as a form of reducing the risk of air strikes. The whole concept of abatement work has multiplied greatly in the last few decades. It is being used in cities, vineyards, orchards, berry fields, land fills, etc. One on the benefits of a spin-off from falconry.

      The challenge is often figuring out how to solve a real problem with it always being a win-win. One has to decide the value of a bird vs the lives of hundreds of people. Authorities are not always aware of certain solutions nor are there always trained, experienced bird abatement businesses available.


    • Bird abatement is another one of those “complicated” issues. I don’t think there are any easy or all-encompassing answers.

      • William Dove

        Just talking raptors there are numerous stratigies for survival of their species. Some have large clutches with good years making up for less successful years. Others have much smaller clutches and work to maximize the survival rate while others may reproduce less often with a single progeny and spend yet more time attempting to ensure success. None of these work all the time nor would great levels of success be the best result for any species.


      • William Dove

        There are no easy answers to any of this stuff. But one needs to be careful not to let only emotions drive the solution(s) put in place.

        For those that may not realize abatement work is generally design to avoid killing by the trained raptor.


  • Patty Chadwick

    Beautiful shots of a beautiful little bird in a very worrisome situation…I hope he was able to find food before he runs out of the energy to even look for it. Love the term “frost flowers”…never hear that before. You have a natural, engaging way with words that those of us who’ve studied and taught Language Arts can truly appreciate. This talent is especially evident in the “grabbers” you create with your “titles”…You’re something else, Ron! I’d bet dollars to donuts, you’ve written poetry, as well as photographed it….

    • Thanks very much, Patty but you’d lose the bet. The only poetry I’ve ever written was some haiku for a graduate class and I hated it – both the process and the result. Oh, and a limerick or two… Poetry just doesn’t resonate with me – except for a few lines of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Strange, I know.

  • Charlotte Norton

    As usual, wonderful shots Ron! I have never seen a snipe and would love to. I do feel quite sorry for this one trying to forage in that miserable weather.

  • Ron, do they keep the roads clear for you to be able to venture into your favorite locations? I guess living in Utah you just know how to drive winter weather. Here in Arkansas everything shuts down so I’m grounded most of the time.

    • Steve, after a snowstorm the biggest problem is “getting there”. I always shoot in early morning so I have to deal with rush hour traffic and that can be a mess in the snow on the way to the island or Farmington or Bear River or wherever. Once I’m at my shooting location the roads there haven’t been plowed (they never plow Farmington and seldom plow the island roads) but unless there’s over a foot of fresh snow my pickup can deal with it.

      Actually, it was mostly my years living in Montana that taught me to drive in snow. Up there you either learn or pay a dear price!

  • Kelly Colgan Azar

    Wonderful photos of this beautiful bird. I hope he’s able to depart… I can’t imagine such cold temperatures as you describe. I’d love to experience them. Probably because I haven’t, I love reading about Antarctica.

    • Kelly, I actually enjoy these cold conditions in most ways. One of my favorite things to do is to go out shooting on a frigid, early morning and have the place to myself as I make virgin tracks in the fresh snow while I’m looking for birds. The crisp air, the almost tangible quiet (with only the sound of my tires crunching the snow) and the awesome views of the Wasatch Mountains from the frozen marshes all appeal to me a lot.

      That said, come the end of February I’m always ready for spring…

  • Beautiful photo that shows interesting winter behavior Ron.

    One thing that puzzles me is that when it gets very cold in Farmington Bay (or elsewhere) and we see Barn Owls hunting all day long to survive the cold, why don’t they migrate out of the area to somewhere warmer? Probably because they do not have enough energy to do so ? There seems to be a trade off between staying put and barely surviving versus flying south to warmer areas. What do you think about this puzzle? Thanks !

    • “There seems to be a trade off between staying put and barely surviving versus flying south to warmer areas.”

      I agree with that statement, Ed. Barn Owls are almost completely non-migratory. Migration is a huge energy drain and during typical winters these birds can survive by staying put and hunting rodents, even through reasonably thick snow cover (using their legendary hearing to locate prey and plunging into the snow for them). But during unusually cold winters when the snow is thick and lasting (and especially if it is crusted over) Barn Owls really struggle to survive and many of them don’t make it. That’s why, as both a bird photographer and a bird lover, I have very mixed emotions when I see them hunting in daylight during winter.

      • William Dove

        For this discussion of migration it could be considered an adaptation for survival. Generally speaking Barn owls disperse from their nest site at about 12 weeks but rarely do they move more than 50km. So they are considered a sedentary species. Without a history and therefore a built in disposition to migrate they don’t have the knowledge of the advantage and the consequences of migration as many think of it. The species has made other adaptations for dealing with being sedentary. (Larger broods than most NA owl species combined with several broods per year.) They are really a tropical owl with parts of NA being the most northern part of our subspecies’ range.

        When I was teaching I explain some of the concept of migration to young students by using the analogy of eating only hamburgers and at MacDonald’s. If the local Mac closed they would find themselves “migrating” to another or a different burger spot. But that would occur only if they knew another existed.

        I know I keep saying this but it is complicated. We can look and see a solution but the birds don’t have our Monday morning quarterback hindsight.


        • Interesting about the larger, multiple broods being an adaptation for their sedentary life style, Bill. Hadn’t thought of that.

        • Thanks Bill, that makes sense.

          We had 14 Barn Owls living in Barn Owl boxes in our orchard last year, this year there are zero. This year there are also barely any pocket gophers due to drought. The Barn Owls seem to have shifted over to the greener areas along rivers in Northern New Mexico. Water = vegetation = gophers to eat the roots = owls to eat the gophers. That is my simple minded theory at least :-).

          • William Dove

            Yes, big shifts in any single component of habitat (in this case food as a result of weather) and the habitat can’t support any animal relying on it being “constructed” a certain way. Many think of raptors at the top of the food chain when in reality we now use the concept of food web which shows a more interdependent relationship between the components. I teach that rather than the raptors controlling the prey population that students consider how much the prey population controls the raptor. Generally speaking with raptors the male must display to the female he can provide food. Courtship and copulation depend on this. The adults ability to incubate depends on this and the survival up to fledge relies on this. For Barn owls specifically they will consume an amazing amount of calories/prey so if you had that many imagine the population of pocket gophers they probably were removing from your orchard and the surrounding areas.

            I bred them for years for wild release. They are a very cool owl.


        • Thanks Bill, the food web model makes sense. I put a remote infrared camera up by one of the Barn Owl houses. The average number of pocket gophers consumed per night when young owls were in the nest box was 11.6. Wow! As you probably know, the agricultural industry in California now uses Barn Owls (by putting up Barn Owl boxes) to control rodents. They do a good job and no rodentcides.

          When I have done bird photography in the SLC area I have not seen any Barn Owl boxes up. I wonder what the attitudes are for putting up boxes in those areas? We put 23 boxes in our farming community with the goal of using the owls for rodent control. A big challenge though is changing the culture here so people refrain from using Warfarin and other anti-cogulant rat and mice poisons (the green stuff). The secondary poisoning of Barn Owls from rats or mice that eat the poison is a bummer.

          Curious on the Utah views on owl boxes. There are a lot of Barn Owls in the SLC area, so something is working out for the owls.


          • Patty Chadwick

            How wonderful to hear about barn owl houses! Especially with the disappearance of so many barns and the nesting places they used to provide. My own owl died from eating a poisoned rat. I still ache just thinking about it after all these years

          • William Dove

            Good for you. For putting up the boxes, campaigning to reduce poisoning and for filming one of the boxes. Since the decline in agriculture practices with old barns gradually falling or being replaced with less owl friendly structures the “shelter” component for many Barn Owls has also declined greatly. Nest boxes are a simple way to replace the shelter component for many owl species (Barred, the Screechs, Boreal, Saw-whet, Burrowing, Elf, Flams, the Pygmys and the Hawk) as well as Kestrels. Great way to involve younger people in the process and appreciation as well.

            With the increase in quality and decrease in cost cam possibilities are greater as well. Lots of things to learn and verify.

            Most wildlife agencies would support any nest box programs if the program is done responsibly.