Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Snipe Hunting!

Last Sunday morning, just before dawn, the water lapped gently against the rocks on the north end of Foster Island. High above in a cottonwood a mature bald eagle surveyed Union Bay. Slightly to the east wood ducks were feeding in the semi-darkness while further away the distant lights of an occasional car sparkled on the 520 high rise.

The eagle proved to be Albert, who soon returned to roost with Eva in their Broadmoor nest. Our 520 eagles are definitely back! A flock of cedar waxwings flew back and forth over the marsh north of Broadmoor, which I call the "Red-Winged Wetlands". 

Just west of the wetlands this green-winged teal enjoyed the early morning sun on the edge of Foster Island. I paddled my kayak south, carefully circumventing the fallen trees in the canal, which I call "Cottonwood Downs." Thanks in part to our industrious, Union Bay beaver population, it always seems another tree has just fallen and lies half submerged across the canal. Leaving the canal I started to pass "Nest Egg Island", between Duck Bay and Foster Island, when a snipe landed at the water's edge. 

If you follow this link you should be able to see the locations I mentioned above. 

At this point the snipe must have finished its morning feeding and was ready for a little quiet time. It turned and hopped off the log and on to shore…

...where it seemed to evaporate right before my eyes. 

I suspect that at some point in life you have been invited on a "mythical" snipe hunt. It turns out that snipes are not a myth and they live right here among us, on Union Bay. The photo above is your chance to go on a snipe hunt with the guarantee that there is a snipe for you to find. Can you see it?

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the term "sniper" came from British soldiers hunting snipe in India over 200 years ago. Not only are snipe difficult to see when they go-to-ground, but they fly in a zig-zag fashion that makes it difficult to track them in the air. The term "sniper" must have been an acknowledgment of the superior skills of a successful hunter.

Here is a close up that shows the snipe who can be found slightly left of center in the previous photo. Even with my best lens I could only barely make out the bird.

Hoping for a better view I edged the kayak slowly forward.

When another bird passed over the snipe's body did not seem to move at all, but the movement of the eye made it almost seem as if the eye was independent from the bird.

Inching closer once again the faint orange coloring became visible on what appear to be the feathers on the leading edge of the wing.

 The snipe seemed totally confident that it could not be seen.

Although when a motorized boat passed by the snipe snapped to attention before...

 …crouching lower in the grass. If you look closely you can also see the orange coloring in a band across the tail. You can also see the orange tail in the closeup, up above.

Still the most amazing feature of the snipe is the bill. Cornell says the bird uses the bill to search for food in the mud. It likes to eat the larvae insects that have been deposited underground for safe keeping. When it finds a larvae it can open just the flexible tip of its bill, without moving the upper portion, and then slurp the larvae into its mouth, without ever pulling its bill out of the mud. Natures adaptions are amazing.

Up until about one hundred years ago, when Montlake Cut lowered Union Bay by around 9 feet, there may not have been much exposed mud for local snipes. However when the water level receded the snipes must have thought they had been transported to snipe nirvana. Imagine an expanse of mud from the Burke-Gilman, north of University Village, all the way to where the UW baseball field is today. Foster Island must have also suddenly expanded into a fairly large and mostly muddy island. 

Union Bay may no longer be such a happy hunting ground for the snipes, but armed with a pair of binoculars, you can still have a successful snipe hunt.

Have a great day on Union Bay…where nature lives in the city!



  1. Wonderful commentary! I loved your photos of snipes!!

  2. Once again you amaze me with your excellent photos and comments. I am so pleased to be part of union bay/montlake and always look forward to what you add to our environment and fun. Thanks

    1. You are very kind. I am glad you are along for the adventure!

  3. Thank you for the marvelous pictures, but also the very helpful map with the "Larry Hubbell" names. It will be a great reference as I continue to enjoy your blog, as I have for the last year or more.

  4. Your are welcome! Because of your comment I added the map as the first link in my favorites. I am glad you found it helpful.

  5. The bird images blew me away as they always do, and now I finally understand the origin of the term sniper, which had never crossed my mind. But what really impressed me was the map. Now I can finally visualize exactly were you're going with that kayak. Well done.

    1. Dan,

      Thank you! I suppose if I was really industrious I would try to link all my posts to locations on the map. Maybe I will just take a go forward approach. Thanks again for your kind words!