Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. April 9, 1893. The Birds That Fly in the Spring. Passing Feather Flights - The Jack Snipe in His Haunts. Omaha Sunday Bee 22(294): 10.

The Birds That Fly in the Spring.

Passing Feather Flights. The Jack Snipe and His Haunts.

EARLY AS IT IS the wild fowl shooting in this vicinity for the present spring is drawing to a close. It has been an unprecedented season. There have been more birds and they have been in better condition than for any previous spring in ten years. The long, hard winter may have had something to do with this, as it is a well established fact than an open winter season is followed by a meager flight of fowl in the spring. The reason for this is that the weather through the months of January and February is of such a character as permit the birds to straggle in irregular flocks until March and then no regular issue from the south takes place. But at the close of a severe winter on the first symptoms of a breaking up the birds come and go in one grand flight, and instead of furnishing indifferent shooting for a period of six or eight weeks, they give us magnificent sport for two or three, such an experience as is just reaching an end.

In another week the main body of the birds will have winged their way on to the far north to their breeding grounds about Baffin's bay and the furthermost borders of the British possessions. That royal old honker, the Canada goose, with his congeners, the Hutchins, the snow and speckled front, the toothsome canvasback, the beautiful mallard, plump redhead, the swift flying teal, widgeon, baldpate, bluebill and butterball, in fact all the feathered habitants of lake, stream, morass and marsh, have already packed their trunks and with head aloft are awaiting a favorable south wind on which to resume their journey to the hyperborean regions. But it is with no regret the true sportsman sees them depart. He has had nearly a month of unrivaled sport at the poor birds' expense, and even welcomes the favoring winds that carry them away to those unfrequented recesses where they can revel and fructify all through the long sunshine summer days, knowing full well that they will return again in greater numbers, and fatter and more delicious, when the frosts of October begin to dye the maple and the sumac with their gaudy yellows and crimsons and scarlets.

And why should the hunter lament, does not the precious little jack-snipe, that marceau of all feathered kind, the yellow-leg and countless species of plover follow the departure of the wild fowl? They are even here now, the jacks and the yellow-legs, and in another week the shooting will be at its height.

Nebraska is surely a favored state. Here resources for healthy proloaging pleasures are as numerous as her countless attractions for stockmen and agriculturists. There is no gainsaying that sports afield are healthful pleasure of the most pronounced kind, and Nebraska teems with these almost the entire year round. I know of no state that can boast of more capital snipe grounds. They can be found within a couple of hours ride of Omaha, in any direction. Little gems of lakes, environed by miles of low-lying, boggy meadow and tussocky, reedy, weedy marshland—the banquet hall of the Gallinago Wilsonii—better known as the English snipe, and still better as the "jack."

These grounds are usually composed of rich black loam, fractured out of all symmetry with conical tufts of miniature hillocks, with brackish pools and reaches of sear buffalo grass between, with the green of the peeping dandelion and the tiger lily just now making itself delightfully manifest. Then closer to the lake or along the numerous sloughs are clumps of Tyrian dyed maple, swamp willow, puckerbrush, sunflower, cane and swaying reeds, making superb nooks for the trysting and the revels of the joyous birds.

The snipe arrive here in their greatest numbers generally during the first genial days in the latter part of March or early April. For a few days they are to be jumped only in straggling numbers, and are restless and uneasy, flushing frequently out of gunshot. But with the warm April showers, and lengthening mellow days, the birds grow more and more plentiful, fatter and less wild, and invariably the second week in April finds the sport at its height.

What can be more inspiring, more exhilarating or enjoyable than to visit any one of the many grounds in this vicinity on a morning like these we are now having? How the sportsman's heart swells as he plants his rubbered foot upon the marsh, and enters feverishly upon his errand, forcing his way through tangles of ambitious sprouts, herbs and bramble, over lichened logs, through thickets of yellow tendriled willows, blood red maple sprigs and creeping vines, with the whole landscape a flutter with animation.

A soft wandering breeze sways the naked reeds, the robin sings blithesomely from the topmost twig of yon budding cottonwood; the red-winged blackbird chirps petulantly from this rose clump and that, the jay scolds in the copse; the sable crow caws provokingly, as with steady pinion stroke he cleaves the blue above, the hawk, standing high on his yellow-pillared legs, watches the love-making of the quail, from the apex of that old snag, while the garter snake, with provident haste, makes its sinuous way from beneath your tread into some neighboring crypt of dead flags. The entire scene is one to bewilder the eye, while it revivifies the fancy.

Is it any wonder that the sportsman will sacrifice almost everything for a trip afield in such weather as this?

The jack snipe, like the woodcock, is a mysterious bird. Nobody knows when he comes in, or when he goes out. They do their journeying by night, riding in on the first warm wave from the south after the earliest spring rains have accomplished their mission with the frost in the earth. There are no birds in the meadow today; tomorrow it is full of them, and the next day they are gone. They arrive and depart with the stealth of disembodied spirits.

They are also a very erratic bird, and often the first one jumped by the eager hunter is the signal for every bird on the ground to take wing. His shrill "skeap" seems to penetrate the furthermost points of the whole surrounding country. This is generally just after they first get in, and under such conditions they are up like so many brown streaks; their note is sharp and spiteful and off they go, flying low at first but gradually ascending until they are but mosquitoes against the over-arching background of blue. Here I have watched them fly by the hour in the most irregular peregrinations, making great curviforms in their aerial diversions, now shooting off out of vision's range, but, unexpectedly making their appearance again, and immediately, as if dropped from the upper spaces, so incomprehensible and mystifying are their movements. At irregular intervals during their flight, that distinct but far-sounding guttural "whirr," that tremulous hoo-oo-oo-oooo, so familiar to all snipe hunters, breaks upon the ear, and which weird sound is made every now and then by the bird beating his sides with wondrous rapidity with its wings during its curvetings in the air. There is no telling what a jack may do; his little shapely head is full of eccentric notions and he may drop down within a few feet of you, tilting dudeishly back into the reeds as noiseless as a sprite, or continue his reticulated antics in the air until he becomes a mere speck and then vanish for good. At other times you find them lazy and sluggish and lying like hunks of mud, in fact almost forcing you to kick them out of their wallow in the warm, oozy loam. This is the case when the weather is sultry and full of spring fever, developing thus suddenly after a gradual moderation of weeks, during which process the struggling sunshine and drizzling rains together have extracted the frost from the ground and rendered "boring" easy for the birds the moment their slender legs settle down. Their long journey from the south, although they have made frequent halts for rest and nourishment, has made them weary and hungry, and they go to work voraciously on their arrival and gormandize themselves on the larvae and angleworms into an indolence that never fails to fill the gunner's bag. Their slow flip-flap up from among the thin reeds is easily followed, and generally with the crack of the hammerless, in skilled hands, they drop back ready for the hands of the cook.

Such are the habits and the ways of the king of all game birds, which are found no more plentiful in any other region of the globe than in Nebraska's rich low lands.

Sandy Griswold.