The Common Snipe: My Introduction to the Bird World

There he was, perched on a post in the marsh, close to the road. A strange, chunky, brown bird that was about 10” long with an extremely long beak. I was at a seminar at Utah State University and the professor, that morning, had taken us bird watching. “What is that?” I asked. “A Common Snipe,” the teacher replied. I was flabbergasted! Snipes were supposed to be a Boy Scout myth, but there one was just as big as life! I was “hooked.” Upon returning home, every bird seen now became a point of curiosity. Binoculars and a field guide became a necessity. Later on, we started photography. I discovered a truth: you can’t become aware of one facet of nature without becoming aware of all the others. Thus trees, flowers, etc. had to be learned about.

The Snipe is a stocky species of marsh and wet meadow. During courtship, in the early spring, the male rises high in the sky and makes a flight display called “winnowing’ – swooping through the sky in a series of loops with the wind whistling through his wings and tail. This causes an eerie fluttering sound. Perching on a post is a normal resting area. However, during nesting season, they are secretive and seldom seen unless flushed. They then explode up and away.

Classified as a shore bird, the long, straight beak allows probing in shallow water with a rapid jabbing motion for the small organisms that abide there.

On our first visit to the new state park – Castle Rocks, we were greeted at the entrance sign by a Snipe just sitting there and solarizing. This seemed to be a good omen and a fitting introduction to this newly opened area.

The Great Horned Owl – Fighter or Lover?

It’s mesmerizing to fall asleep, or awaken, to a soft hooting in
the early evening, or in the wee morning hours. Such is a common occurrence at
our house. These love calls begin in late fall and result in the laying of four
eggs in late winter. Incubation is started at once and results in separate
hatching times for each egg. This situation is known as a “stairstep” family and
whether all, or part, of the young are raised depends on the food supply. The
biggest baby is always fed first and it will survive even if the others don’t.
When the young fledge, they are ½ again larger than the adults. This allows for
an adjustment period when they are learning to fend for themselves.

The GREAT HORNED OWL is not only “tender” with its own but is very formidable
with others. They can take prey as large as a skunk and I have seen young cats
(in our yard) that have been torn in half. A smack on your head with their
talons could be very injurious.

They are identified by size (22”), a white throat, and ear-like feather
projections. They are quite adaptable and wide spread across North America and
are important rodent controllers. Mice and voles make up the lion’s share of
their diet. Other bird species will often “mob” them during daylight hours. Our
yard and lower tree plots are to their liking and we get to witness the raising
and fledging of young each year.


A bird in the hand equals two in the bush

By Dave Hanks 

Tiny little claws grasp and tickle my fingers. It’s a BLACK- CAPPED CHICKADEE – a small bird that is named for its call and black cap. If you are in the woods you hear the call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, it is unmistakably this bird.

We have two Chickadee species in Cassia County: the Black-Capped and the Mountain. The Mountain Chickadee is told from the Black-Capped by a white eyebrow stripe and is the more common in our county. Both prefer higher elevation woodlands of both deciduous and coniferous trees. They usually forage in the lower branches where they are often seen feeding by hanging upside down. When not nesting, they gather in huge flocks. They are insectivorous but will come to feeders containing seed.

As you can see, they can also be lured onto ones hand, perch on your camera, or even alight on your head. Following a Chickadee call can lead you to other species, which they tend to feed in a group with; such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, and kinglets. They may even lead you to owls that are sitting on their daytime roosts. These frisky fellows are a favorite winter visitor to bird feeding stations.



Courtship Variety

by Dave Hanks

You are probably aware of some common bird courtship rituals – such as a male feeding a female, or the male and female preening each other; the cooing of doves, and the singing rituals of many other bird species. Grouse and turkeys display by strutting. Some mammals appear to be fighting, but it is only the male and female rough-housing – which gets their hormones flowing.

Other species have some unique courtship methods. Spiders are especially unique. The Australian Red-Back male is much smaller than the female. The female requires the male to do an elaborate dance for over an hour to two hours. During the dance, the male connects his web to her web. He then taps a drum-like rhythm on her abdomen. If he stops too soon, she will bite his head off – which she does anyway, after mating.

Rhino courtship is called “Bluff and Bluster”. When in estrus, the female urinates on dung piles to lure a male on. The male will scatter these piles in an attempt to keep other males away. The bull then snorts and swings his head side to side and runs from the female. Afterwards, the pair will then snort and spar, with the female working the male over vigorously. The couple will stay together for several days or up to several weeks.

The Leaf-Nosed Bat will find an opening in the rock of a cave that is narrow enough to only allow one other to enter, thus keeping other males out. He will call and flap his wings to entice any available female. If one enters his little abode, he wraps his wings around her and nuzzles her. If she doesn’t fly off, they will mate.

A favorite bird of mine is the COMMON SNIPE (pictured). I like him, not only for his looks, but for his “winnowing” display that can be heard on a spring morning over a meadow. He gains altitude and then descends in a spiral pattern. The air rushing through his wings makes sounds like the bleating of a goat. In many languages he is known as the flying goat. He will, also, make shallow dives to produce a “drumming” sound with his tail. Such a repertoire to go through in order to attract female attention!

Resting after the morning’s aerial displays

Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher

by Dave Hanks

The state bird of Oklahoma is indeed unique. On trips we’ve taken to southern Texas in the early spring, we would look forward to experiencing this bird. It’s so unmistakable that you can’t miss identifying it. Besides the extremely long tail, it has a white belly washed in salmon-pink, and a white head. Texas Bird of Paradise is this bird’s nickname.

The male does a spectacular aerial, courtship display – his long forked tail streaming behind him. The pair builds a cup shape nest in an isolated tree or on a telephone pole. Human products (i.e. string, cloth, paper, carpet fuzz) are often used. In fact, they can make up 1/3rd of the weight of the nest. Both parents care for 3 to 6 young, and are very aggressive in defending them.

Scissor-Tails eat mostly insects like grasshoppers and dragonflies, and like other flycatchers, fly from a perch to nab them in mid-air. Berries are also on the menu.

When preparing for migration, they will gather in groups of up to a thousand.

If you are ever in the south-central states in open, scrubby areas with scattered trees, or even by large trees close to towns; look for this beautiful bird.

Nuthatches: The Big to the Little

It is odd to see a bird traveling down a branch or tree trunk upside down. Well, that is a noticeable characteristic of nuthatches. America has four species of these UPSIDE DOWN BIRDS: White-Breasted, Red-Breasted, Brown-Headed, and Pygmy. Nuthatches are stub-tailed, nervous little birds. They hold on to the tree with their claws – stretching one foot forward under their chest while leaving one back by their tail. A thin, sharp beak allows them to pick insects out of tree bark.
by Dave Hanks

The RED-BREASTED is our nuthatch here in Cassia County. I have previously mentioned this 4 ½ inch species of our forests, and its “yank – yank” call. Another (smaller sized) nuthatch is the BROWN-HEADED that is found in the southeastern states. The Brown-Headed call sounds like the squeak of a rubber duck. We have experienced this bird in Pettit-Jean Park, Arkansas in November.

The little PYGMY has a shrill call, and is only found here in our western mountains. It has a gray-brown crown, gray back, and a buff white belly. We have experienced this species in Oregon’s Ponderosa Pine forests and also in the trees by Jacob’s Lake, Arizona.

The WHITE-BREASTED (5 ¾ inches) is the largest and most wide spread. These birds have white bellies and heads, and rusty colored butts. There is a black stripe on their crowns. They are easily observed because they will readily come to bird feeders. This species voice is loud and its insistent yammering will lead you to it.

Nuthatches get their name from their habit of jamming nuts into crevices in tree bark. Then the birds will whack the nuts with their sharp bills to hatch the seeds out of their shells. Although in the family Sittidae, you could almost picture these birds as small woodpeckers. In winter, nuthatches flock with chickadees and kinglets.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch

Do you Eat like a Bird

by Dave Hanks

To eat like a bird is one of the most incorrect analogies I can think of. To most folks, it means that you don’t eat much – just nibble at your food. How untrue that analogy is! Any eagle or other large raptor can consume a whole rabbit at one meal. In fact, most species (large or small) consume half their body weight every day. As a comparison, a 130 pound woman would eat 50 to 70 pounds of food daily. “Great Scot”! Why do birds need that much food? Flight requires tremendous energy, both for body warmth and movement when aloft. When watching seed or insect eating species, notice that they rarely take a break from the task of obtaining their meals; and if feeding baby birds, the search becomes very intense. Not only must the adults feed themselves, but their young require even more than half their weight in daily nourishment.

The bird pictured is a BLACK PHOEBE. It is a southwestern member of the Flycatcher Family. It is a small songbird that is black with a white belly and a notched tail, which it wags, and is white underneath. This phoebe is always found in close proximity to water. The many insects that are found associated with wet areas, are important to fill its feeding needs.

Although it is primarily insectivorous, it will eat some berries, and also tiny fish – which it will also feed to nestlings. Insects are spotted from a low perch and then pursued. Hovering is another hunting method used. The nest is an open cup that’s made of mud, grass, and hair. The female is shown possible sites by the male hovering in front of spots for 5 to 10 seconds, but she makes the final decision – usually under an eave or under a bridge.

This bird is not colorful, but nevertheless attractive. It is also tolerant of people that come into its vicinity.

BLACK PHOEBE Perched and surveying the insect world

Perched and surveying the insect world

Goldfinch are July Nesters

by Dave Hanks

Why do goldfinch nest so late, when other birds are finishing up the raising of their broods? Goldfinch are thistle dependant birds and must wait until the thistle blooms. The plant matures in July, and the bird builds its nest out of the fibers and down of the thistle’s flower. The nest is usually built in the fork of a tree branch at 4 to 15 feet above the ground. The female does the work, and she does it so well that the cup will hold water.

Four to six pale bluish-white eggs require two weeks to incubate. The male will feed the female as she sits on the nest. When the eggs hatch, thistles have gone to seed. The parents eat those seeds and the partially digested seeds are milk-like (similar to dove’s milk) – and the chicks are nourished on this semi-liquid fare. Goldfinch are granivorous (grain or seed eaters), but they will feed insects to their young. They are not aggressive toward predators, but will give an alarm call. Snakes, hawks, weasels, squirrels, magpies, and feral cats all pose a threat to both the young and the adults.

Goldfinches are gregarious during the fall and winter, and gather in large flocks. At this time they have also lost their brilliant breeding colors – no longer the bright yellow that distinguishes their species.

American Goldfinch waiting for a turn at the nyjer (thistle) feeding sock

American Goldfinch waiting for a turn at the nyjer (thistle) feeding sock

Blue Grouse: A Gift

by Dave Hanks

The Blue Grouse is a gentle and quiet bird of our western high mountains. The male’s deep booming call is subtle and hard to locate. This is a large chicken-like bird that is sooty gray, with a light band on the tip of a black tail, and a reddish/yellow eyebrow. When the male “booms”, you can then see a red air sac surrounded by a white ruff.

I have tried and tried to get a good photo of this bird, but he is hard to find. Finally, luck smiled on me! We were in the northeast mountains of Yellowstone Park. We saw some people parked on the top of a hill. Thinking that they might have spotted a bear or some wolves, we stopped. They were foreigners (German, I think). A man pointed to the ground a few feet down the slope, smiled, and said: “Puffed-up chicken”. There was my grouse! It was in front of a big log and in the shade. I took several shots, moved to have the sun behind me and took several more. I thought I had some good ones, but then I received a real GIFT. The bird went around the end of the log and jumped on top of it. He posed, displayed, and “boomed”. I was ecstatic! The last shots were so much better, that I erased all previous ones It’s rare that an animal cooperates so ideally – an A+ for him.

During the nesting season, the male will often perch on a log to give his call. The comb over his eyes will stand up; he will fan his tail, and fluff out his neck to display his air sacs. The female will lay 5 to 10 eggs in a scrape lined with pine needles and grass. She does the egg incubating, which takes 25 days to hatch, and then cares for the chicks – which are precocial. The Blue Grouse eats seeds, berries, and insects. In the winter they will eat conifer needles. The few times I have seen this species, has been in krumholtz zones (wind stunted trees that abut alpine meadows).

A Blue Grouse Displaying his white ruff: Red air sac underneath

Displaying his white ruff: Red air sac underneath

Northern Bobwhite

by Dave Hanks

Here is another species (like the Killdeer) that is both precocial and named after its call, which is a most distinctive clear whistled “bob-white” or “bob-bob-white”. The syllables are slow, widely spaced, and raising a full octave from beginning to end.

This plump quail is 10 to 11 inches long with a 15 inch wing span. It has a prominent white stripe on its head, and a prominent white throat. Bobwhites are chicken-like birds of the eastern United States and Mexico that can be seen all year long. They feed on the seeds and insects found in brush-lands, open woodlands, agriculture-lands, grasslands, and even roadsides. They are usually monogamous and both parents will incubate the eggs for 23-24 days. Eggs are laid over a 3 week period but will hatch within an hour of each other. The young talk to each other, while still in the egg, which seems to synchronize their development. The precocial chicks will fledge at two weeks. These birds will usually raise two broods a year of 12 – 16 eggs in each.

Bobwhites are shy and reclusive. When threatened, they will crouch and freeze, relying on camouflage for protection. When not raising chicks, they will feed and roost in coveys. They roost on the ground in a circle – with heads facing outward. When confronted, they will explode upward which confuses predators.

Sightings made here in Idaho are rare. My nephew, however, photographed one a year ago in Rock Creek Canyon. He had wondered if the Fish and Game Department had introduced them to this area, but was told that they had not. It was just a happenstance sighting of a bird out of its range.

This well camouflaged bird may be reclusive, but its loud, unmistakable call will let you know of its presence.

Blending in with the roadside vegetation

Blending in with the roadside vegetation