American Birding Podcast



Dispatches from Attu: The Finding of the Snipe

While the forecast was for winds out of the southeast, we awoke to southwest winds on May 31. Since they weren’t associated with a storm passing by us I didn’t have high hopes, but it was still more encouraging than yesterday’s northeast winds. We split up into three groups to cover more area, with some going south to Blue Robin Canyon, others exploring around the Peaceful River, and a few poking around the Casco Cove area.

I was leading that last group. After checking out the west side of the cove we biked over to the west end of the east-west runway. Just off a taxiway here there are four paved areas being reclaimed by moss and surrounded by high banks. They’ve attracted a few good vagrants in the past and are easy to check by bike.

The first three had nothing, but as I was about two-thirds around the fourth, a snipe flushed from under a scraggly willow at the edge of the pavement. It flew up a bank and appeared to land at the top. I called over Colin Campbell. I told him that it looked a little small to me and that perhaps the wings were a little more rounded than I would expect for a Common Snipe, the expected species out here.

We swept through the area where it had gone and quickly flushed it again from under another willow. Then as we discussed the plan on how to approach it again, it flushed again. This time, we could clearly see where it landed. I radioed to the Peaceful River group that we had a potentially interesting snipe. Unfortunately, the group that went south was out of radio range. We moved closer to where the snipe had landed to wait for them to arrive.

As Colin and I stood there, a head popped out of the grass after about five minutes. I didn’t know enough about snipe identification to be able to say if it was a Common or not. After another few minutes, the snipe began to feed and walked out into the open. I was still unsure about the ID, but it appeared to lack the warm tones that I would expect on a Common Snipe.


The Peaceful River group was in sight and just a few minutes away when the snipe disappeared again behind a small hill. Doesn’t it always happen that way? We had to do another sweep to refind it. We couldn’t get another look at it on the ground. We flushed it a few more times. Eventually Jess Findlay and Julio Mulero got decent photos of it in flight. The secondaries didn’t have a white trailing edge. It was time to get the other group!

The lack of a white trailing edge was an excellent sign that we were dealing with a Pin-tailed Snipe, a bird with only about six previous ABA Area reports. To finish up this long story, once the last group arrived, we were able to flush it several more times and get more photos. After we were able to study them and consult reference material, we were sure it was a Pin-tailed Snipe. Well, it’s not certain if Pin-tailed can be separated from Swinhoe’s Snipe in the field without hearing it call (and our bird did not call), so I have to add that caveat, but three of the six previous birds were collected and confirmed as Pin-taileds.

Marks leading to the identification other than the lack of a white trailing edge on the wings were the bird’s overall pale coloration, lower scapulars with outer and inner margins that are equal in thickness and coloration, a short tail, and large eyes compared to Common Snipe.

There were just a few other Asian birds today: a single Tufted Duck and a “Siberian” Whimbrel.