Birds – Dowitcher

(Macrorhamphus griseus)


Length—9.50 to 10.50 inches.

Male and Female: In summer—Upper parts black, the feathers edged or barred with rusty red, white, and buff; tail and rump white barred with dusky; lower part of back white, conspicuous in flight; under parts rusty red, paler or white below, more or less spotted and barred with dusky. Bill, which is two inches long, is blackish brown. Legs and feet greenish brown. In winter —General plumage brownish or ashy gray; lower back white; rump and tail barred with dusky and white; lower parts white, shading into gray on breast.

Range —Eastern North America, nesting within the Arctic Circle and wintering from Florida to the West Indies and Brazil.

Season—Spring and autumn migrant; April, May; August and September.

Compact flocks of gray snipe, as they are called after the summer moult has transformed them, migrating southward along the sea coast in August and September, may be easily called down by anyone sufficiently familiar with their loud, quivering, querulous whistle to imitate it. Sportsmen also use decoys; but these are gentle, sociable birds, among the last to suspect evil or to take alarm, and need little encouragement to alight beyond the supposed entreaties of a sister flock. They appear to be never in a hurry; the long journey to and from their nesting grounds has frequent halting places; the mellow days of early autumn find them free from care and ready to accept every invitation to enjoy life to the full.

Wheeling about as the imitation of their call reaches them, if they are not perchance flying too high to hear it, down swings the flock, hovering over the mud flats and tracts of low beach exposed at ebb tide. After circling about and seeing none of their kin, they may nevertheless decide to stop and rest awhile and feed in so promising a field. Now they scatter, but never so far that a chattering talk may not be kept up with their companions while they look for snails, seeds of sedges, insects, small mollusks, gravel, and bits of vegetable matter picked off the surface or from the shallow pools in the salt marshes. Some-times they probe the soft mud, too, for some tiny marine creature that has buried itself there; but not commonly, as the woodcock and Wilson’s snipe do. A sand bar will often be so crowded with these sociable little waders that the sportsman picks off a dozen or more birds at a single shot; and so innocent are they that even such a lesson does not prevent their returning to the identical spot after a short flight. It is small wonder they are favorites with shooters.

Skimming over the marshes, swallow fashion, a flock darts about in an erratic, joyous course—now high in air and performing some beautiful evolutions, now close above the sedges—their shrill, quivering whistle, constantly called back and forth, keeping the neighborhood lively. The note can scarcely be distinguished from the whistle of the yellowlegs that these snipe frequently associate with as they do with various sandpipers. When on the wing, the white spot on the lower back, a diagnostic feature, is conspicuous enough to help the novice name the bird.

A number of nests or depressions in the moss or grasses that answered the purpose, have been found near lakes and marshes at the far north by travellers who have brought back to our museums clutches of four drab or fawn colored eggs spotted and marked with sepia, chiefly around the larger end. These birds of many names are not found in Germany, any more than the so called English snipe is found in England, but they are called German snipe or Deutschers, to distinguish them from that species, dowitcher being simply a corruption of Deutscher in the mouths of longshoremen.

The Long-billed or Western Dowitcher (Macrorhamphus scolopaceus), the representative of the preceding species from the Mississippi Valley westward to Alaska, may be distinguished from it chiefly by its slightly larger size and longer bill and possibly by its more uniformly rusty under parts and the heavier dusky bars on its sides in the summer plumage only. Very rarely one of these birds is taken by gunners on the Atlantic coast. In habits these two species are similar—even their eggs being identical; but the shrill whistled p’te-to-te, p’te-te-te, of the gray snipe swells into a musical song, something like peet-peet; pee-ter-wee-too; wee-too; twice repeated, according to Mr. D. G. Elliot, in the case of the long-billed dowitcher. For years even scientific men thought these two species were one.