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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Snipe Hunting in Brooklyn

Twelve years ago my friend Steve and I discovered, completely by accident, that Wilson's Snipe (known back then as "Common Snipe") migrate through Brooklyn approximately the first week of April. We also learned that one of the most reliable places to find them is at a NYC department of parks property named "Four Sparrow Marsh". For the next few years following that revelation Steve and I made it an annual rite to go Snipe Hunting in early April. This year we revived that tradition after a long break.

The expression "Snipe Hunt" has a non-birding connotation, which in some ways may actually apply to Steve and my quest. According to Wikipedia a "Snipe Hunt" usually means:

"...a form of wild-goose chase that is also known as a fool's errand, is a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The origin of the term is a practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about a bird or animal called the snipe as well as a usually preposterous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises such as banging rocks together."

Steve is a great photographer and part of the motivation for tracking down Wilson's Snipe is so that he can take some photos. Despite knowing exactly where and when to find snipe in Brooklyn, there are several factors working against the optics-wielding hunter. First is the habitat. Snipe are typically found in muddy, marshy landscapes - not the easiest place for humans to navigate. Second is their plumage. A mottled pattern of black, brown and tan plumage helps this bird to virtually disappear in their preferred, wet habitats. Finally, if one does happen to flush a snipe they'll zigzag across the horizon (never in a straight line) making following them in a viewfinder nearly impossible.

Heydi joined us this year for our fools errand to Four Sparrow Marsh. Armed with binoculars, cameras and rubber Wellies, we descended into the marsh at low-tide. I need to stress that this is not a location for the faint of heart or inexperienced bushwhacker. The footing is uneven at best and a bit treacherous in a few spots. In addition, some snipe migrate from as far as northern South America to breeding grounds in Alaska. While flushing them in their resting and refueling locations, such as Four Sparrow Marsh, may seem amusing, it causes them to burn energy unnecessarily. Heydi, Steve and I made every attempt to quietly approach their habitat and NOT flush them.

We worked our way around the western edge of the marsh then slowly picked a path towards the bowl-like center of the habitat. Like soldiers negotiating a path through a mine field, we'd take a few steps, then carefully scan back and forth across the grass in front of us. Once we were certain that there were no birds hunkered down in the grass, we'd proceed. Snipe either have incredible eyesight or, more likely, they can hear us squishing through the mussel encrusted grass and muck. Within the first 5 minutes we flushed a group of four that had been sitting only a few yards in front of us ... First we'd hear their raspy "scaipe" cry, then one by one they'd serpentine a low flight path across the marsh.

Our route from the upland habitat, across the marsh and to Mill Basin is just under a half mile. Our deliberately slow pace and frequent pauses to scan for these elusive birds took us about forty-five minutes from end to end. During that time we managed to count 23 Wilson's Snipe. The three of us combined to photograph a grand total of zero (the photo above was taken several years ago). It is to this bird's credit that they have managed to outwit most humans. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists this species conservation status as "Least Concern". Last year I managed to photograph one that had dropped down in Prospect Park. It was foraging in the mud within the drained pond at the park's "Vale of Cashmere". I think the only reason that it didn't flush was because it was three feet below the walkway and couldn't see me and other birders watching above. Maybe for next year's Snipe Hunt we should try disguising ourselves as giant snipe.

1 comment:

Yojimbot said...

to get a pic you have to be a sniper.

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