I was eleven years old and I knew that this was going to be my first big birding year. My mother had helped me meet some of Rochester’s finest bird watchers: Gordon Meade, Joe Taylor, Alan Klonick and Howard Miller. These adults were sponsoring me as a kind of experiment with an excited child.
Now winter was retreating and spring seemed ready to burst upon me, but where were the birds? Yes, those big bright first robins had shown up, but other than them around my home we only had the familiar birds that had been there all winter: chickadees, house sparrows, jays and crows. I could hardly contain my excitement, waiting for the migrants to appear. February passed into March and March in turn became early April, but still few newcomers turned up.
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Except one. And, because it was an unusual newcomer, it drew all my attention.
Although I lived in a residential neighborhood, behind our house were open fields where a few cows fed on the tall grass. From over those fields came a kind of low, almost continuous “who-who-who-who-…” sound. I stared at the sky looking for its source but with no luck. Yet, as if to mock me, the who sounds continued.
I finally used my father’s powerful binoculars to search and after what seemed like an hour I made out a tiny speck at least a quarter mile above me. It was so high I couldn’t even make out any field marks.
A call to Mr. Klonick produced the identification. He informed me that I was observing the winnowing behavior of a snipe, the who-who-who-ing produced by air passing through the primary feathers of its short, pointed wings.
But wait a minute. The only snipe I knew of was the fictitious target of the infamous snipe hunt my older brother, a boy scout, had warned me about. In his version, the victim of this practical joke would be sent into the woods armed with a spear and a banana to bring back a snipe.
A review of my bird guide informed me, however, that my who-bird was indeed a snipe, a robin-sized shorebird with an extraordinarily long bill. These stocky brown birds pass through this region during migration and a few remain to nest in swampy areas.
Listen for them this spring.