The Interesting Feeding Technique Of The Wilson’s Snipe

Snipe feeding technique had me puzzled until I did a little research several years ago.

 

1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 320, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

The Wilson’s Snipe is an elusive species so usually I can’t get very close to them but two days ago at Farmington Bay WMA a couple of them came in so close to my pickup that for a while I didn’t even try to focus on them. As a result most of these images are either full frame or cropped very little.

The name “snipe” is derived from “snite,” a variant of “snout,” which refers to their long, very straight bill. That bill is the perfect tool for probing into mud for their primary prey which is small larval insects.

 

 

1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 320, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

They plunge that long bill into the mud and use sensory pits at its distal end to locate their prey.

 

 

1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 320, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

But I seldom see actual prey in their bill even when I make deliberate attempts at capturing it with my camera. This is one of the few times I’ve actually been able to see it.

 

 

A huge crop of the previous image reveals a tiny larval insect near the end of the bill and we can also see much of that very long slender tongue that aids in moving prey up the entire length of the bill.

The first few times I watched a feeding snipe up close I was puzzled by something I observed. Usually they don’t withdraw their bill from the mud/water before swallowing their food. While probing for prey I could never observe the base of the beak moving (separating) at all, even when the beak was only partially submerged. How could the bird be opening the tip of its bill to capture prey in the mud when there’s not even a slight separation of the mandible and maxilla near the base of the bill during the process?

 

 

It turns out that snipes and a few other birds that feed in a similar manner have a trick up their sleeves called rhynchokinesis. The beak is far from rigid and the tip is very flexible so that tip can be opened and closed in the mud while capturing prey (where we can’t see it) with no movement at all at the bill’s base.

In this photo, taken several years ago, we can see some of the flexibility of the tip of the bill because the maxilla is bent sharply upwards at its distal end. This allows these birds to open and close the tip of the bill while it’s buried in mud (capturing prey in the process) without opening its entire length to some degree.

And that solved the puzzle of what I had observed in the field.

Ron

 

 

 

26 comments to The Interesting Feeding Technique Of The Wilson’s Snipe