Snipe or woodcock? The stripes tell the story
A friend of mine recently took an afternoon drive through a natural area with his wife and camera. An amateur birder, he was on the lookout for whatever sort of winged friends he could spot, point out to his wife and photograph with his camera.
In a post-excursion conversation, he told me he’d seen (and photographed) an American woodcock. However, later, he sent me an email with the photo of the bird attached and was asking my expert opinion about the true identity of the bird he’d spotted. “I’m not sure if it’s really a woodcock or perhaps a Wilson’s snipe,” Tom wrote.
Since both birds sport a brown-on-brown-on-tan camouflage feathering and each has a pronounced and elongated beak for probing into soft soil for worms or other food, I could understand his confusion. I looked at the photo and offered my expertise. Here’s what I wrote:
I was once an avid hunter of both Wilson’s snipe and American woodcock. Because of this, most of the snipe and woodcock I’ve seen over the years have been during the open hunting season with shotgun in hand. When hunting it’s important to be able to differentiate between the two species since they have different open seasons and daily bag limits.
Based on my experience, I’m happy to examine the evidence (photo), render a conclusion and put to rest your confusion.
First, let me say woodcock are much easier targets than snipe. Though they are not speedy fliers, woodcock are tricky, since they are usually found in woodlands (thus their name) and flitter through the trees requiring them to dodge or dart as they fly to avoid hitting tree trunks and branches. Even if a hunter shoots and misses, woodcock seldom fly far so the hunter can often flush them a second time and expend more shotshells in the quest to harvest a bird or two for a woodcock dinner.
Snipe are birds found in open lands with nothing between hunter and quarry but air. This would seemingly seem as though they would thus present an easier target to a competent gunner. If this seems right to you, consider this: Upon taking flight, snipe seem to flap one wing perhaps six times then the alternate wing about eight times and seldom do they fly with both wings flapping at the same time or speed. The result is rapid and abrupt zigs and zags almost certain to fool the aim of the most seasoned scatter gunner.
Additionally, once a snipe takes flight and the two or three shotshells in the gun have been exhausted, snipe will continue flying until they become nearly invisible specks departing into the autumn sky.
Once you’ve harvested a few of either or both and have prepared them pan seared with butter and garlic, a rich fruity sauce will highlight the flavor of either bird. Some say the woodcock has a stronger flavor. I say they are quite similar in flavor.
So, if you can remember the flight pattern exhibited when the shorebird you photographed took flight, that should be a solid clue as to whether your subject was a snipe or woodcock.
Other than that, the easiest way to determine the difference is to look at stripes on their head. The woodcock’s head stripes run across the top of their head – ear to ear, so to speak – and a snipe’s head-stripes run lengthwise. Ergo, you have now added the sighting and photo of a Wilson’s snipe to your collection.