A few days ago I was leaving the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma after a morning of photographing wildlife. As I was packing up my gear, a large flock of Greater Yellowlegs landed in a flooded field nearby. I quickly pulled my camera back out and started photographing the yellowlegs feeding. But after a passing car spooked them, the yellowlegs took off and I figured I had missed my opportunity.
Luckily, the yellowlegs flock did return shortly after, and I was able to get some nice shots of them as well that I’ll be writing about in my next post.
While waiting to see if the yellowlegs would return, I glanced down at the muddy ground near my truck and spotted a well-camouflaged Wilson’s Snipe! I was amazed that this stocky, short-legged shorebird had practically been right under my feet without me even realizing it. Once I knew what to look for, I spotted five more snipes in the area. Their mottled brown, black and white plumage blended in perfectly with the wet soil and vegetation.
I spent the next hour photographing these usually elusive birds from quite close range through my truck’s open window. Wilson’s Snipes differ from the more widespread Common Snipe in several ways – they have a narrower white trailing edge on the wings, eight tail feathers instead of seven, and greenish-grey legs. But it’s their long, straight dark bill that is their most distinctive feature. They use it to probe deep into soft wet ground searching for worms, insect larvae and other prey.
The flexible tip of a snipe’s bill can open to grasp food while the base remains closed. This allows them to slurp up small invertebrates without having to remove their bill from the mud each time. It’s an ingenious adaptation for their feeding style.
Another intriguing adaptation is the placement of a snipe’s eyes far back on its head, which gives it nearly 360° vision. This makes it almost impossible to sneak up on a feeding snipe. As a photographer, I have to move slowly and stay low to the ground to get close. But it’s worth it to get frame-filling portraits of these usually shy wetland birds.
Wilson’s Snipes breed across Canada and the northern U.S., and migrate south for the winter. But some remain year-round in the southernmost parts of their range, like Oklahoma. I feel fortunate to have encountered a small group lingering here this late in the fall.
After the Greater Yellowlegs flock returned, I was able to get some nice shots of them as well. But finding these cryptically-colored Wilson’s Snipes right under my nose was still a special treat. I ended up with many keepers that capture the unique beauty of these well-hidden wetland residents. Being able to photograph both species made for an excellent morning of bird photography full of chance encounters, which is what I love most about this pursuit!
Image Information (First Image):
- Date: 11/4/23
- Time: 10:26 AM
- Camera: Canon EOS R7
- Lens: EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
- ISO: 640
- Aperture: 6.3
- Shutter: 1/1250
- Exp. Comp.: 0
- Lens (mm): 400
- Program Mode: Manual
Here is a video I shared on TikTok of one of the Snipes bouncing up and down: https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZT8AfX8BK/
Wilson’s Snipes move up and down as they feed in a slow “sewing machine” motion while methodically probing soft, muddy ground for earthworms, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Occasionally, they also stamp their feet. Apparently to startle prey into moving, which helps them find prey near the surface or in shallow water.
Their bobbing motion while feeding is like that of American Woodcocks, which are related to snipes.