Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

July 31, 1904. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 39(305): 24. Includes a picture of a snipe.

Bringing Down the Jacksnipe in the Pastures of Nebraska

Sandy G.V. Griswold.

And the jacksnipe, scolopax Wilsonii. Countless sportsmen, and I fearlessly proclaim that I am with them in this esteem, consider this rose-hued little wanderer, the king of all the gunner's birds, not excepting even the lordly canvasback or the peerless woodcock. Certain it is, few winged creatures enkindle such a flame in the shooter's heart as this gamey little autocrat of the bog, whether rising from the wet and tussocky pasture land at the dawn of the sweet vernal season or heard high in the steely skies when he arrives in the early fall time. Whether you call him jacksnipe, Wilson or English snipe, or by any other local appellation, he is ever the same toothsome and charming little champion. The principal reason for this lies in his independent and defiant characteristics and his apparent consciousness of superiority over all his kind, qualities largely partaken of by our common quail. The jack is alert and keen enough to require the strictest attention of the hunter when in quest of him and yet he is not so wild as to render his capture nearly the task it is to circumvent Bob White in our straggling woods and matted creek bottoms. When the quail finds a good place to hide, it is next to impossible to flush him without the aid of a thoroughly trained dog. But the saucy jack lies in perdu only as a tantalizing procedure in his program for the day. He squats in some hoof track or soggy crypt amidst the slough grass or weeds and with his sharp eyes watches merrily for your approach. There is seemingly no terror in his little heart at the sound of the sloshing of your rubbered foot in the mire or the glancing beams of the sun from your tan coat of canvas as you maneuver among the cattails and the rice. But seldom, and then invariably on blustery days, does he leap into aerial navigation before you are in good range of your Parker. He appears to derive a keen delight in allowing you to get as close as you can without stepping on him and to shoot at him as he darts away, "nigger-chaser" fashion, over the bosom of the oozy ocean unvironing. He has unlimited faith and confidence in the reticulatory powers of his little, barred, chestnut pinions to elude your spasmodic aim. And to all but the most experienced and skillful shots his twisting and distortive flights is an ample safeguard.

As the most attractive game in the spring, aside from the wild fowl, here in Nebraska, the jack fills an aching void in the sportsman's breast.

Don't you remember that day, last spring, Bill, when Jack Frost first let go his hold on the broad marshland southeast of Calhoun, where you and I have for so many happy seasons tramped together. Angrily shrieked the winds of the month of Martius and ugly scowled the cold, gray sky, but what cared we, bold buccaneers of bog and field? Hadn't we heard the night before the piping of the incoming snipe falling from the muggy heights above? Did not those magic notes find an answering cry in our hearts? Was that not enough for knights whose heritage had been a love for the chase? Howling winds and frowning skies held no forebodings for us and we plowed on through quag and mire, and leaped the overflowing ditches, and threshed through the wet brush and dead flags, with the sprightliness of boys at play on a sunny June day.

Not yet had frog or hyla pickeringil fractured the silence left in winter's wake, no liquid tinkle from the meadow where the golden-vested lark makes her summer home, no chirruping from the scarlet-splotched starlings in the reddening willows along the slough; no dotted lines or triangles against the leaden dome, where the pintails and the Canadas should be hastening north. Yet on we trudged and labored through mud and slush and snow with hearts bursting with contentment and happiness. The chilly wind whistles about your ears and glances from your canvas shield, yet you chatter blithely away, look as if you would refuse to turn back to the cheery fire and comfort, even if I said so, of which there was not the slightest danger. Many, many the acres of ragged wet crags and sodden leaves, muck and slush, did we tear and splash through, with never a sight or sound of life but the dark line and dolorous crow across the wintry landscape. Yet on we plunged and struggled, though our faces were tingling, our hands benumbed and feet cold and sore, and never was a harder day's work done, and never a happier pair of men did it.

Suddenly we were brought to a dead halt and as a shrill "skeape!" rose above the shriek of the wind, the blood pumped with renewed warmth from our hearts, our limbs freshened and became strong, and, as a wisp of brown and white, a form we knew in the flash of an eye, mounted upon the rushing gale, we had our guns to our shoulders.

Crack! You shot just as the jack gave an electric twist, and tacked away on a new line, leaving your No. 8's whizzing along the old one! As I whirl my Parker around and pull the trigger before the little scamp has time to convolute again, he was just far enough ahead to ride unscathed through the openings between the line of pellets my gun left at this long range.

The first jack of spring. What a nerve tingling sight. Would we get him? You bet we would and did.

"I knew they were in," excitedly ejaculated my comrade, "come on, come on—I've marked him down."

And so had I for that matter, and each slipping in another of those matchless Peters' shells, off we trudged lighted of burden, fuller of hope, more determined and happier than ever.

But jack No. 1 was surely onto his job and had evidently heard of Bill and me before. As forage was poor he was, of course, lean and trim for a long and strategic battle, which he surely gave us. He seemed to enjoy the sport as much as we did and played with us pretty much as tabby plays with a mouse. But he reckoned without his host as the sequel will prove.

The second time he jumped he was way out of reach and mounting high in the air, we concluded he was off for good. But he was not. Rejoicing in the gale he went skyward as if he intended to lose himself in the mists above, then descending, he sped up the wind like an arrow from the bow, and Bill and I stood watching him despairingly. Now he shot off on one tack, now on another, and finally wheeling in a prolonged spiral, back he came straight for where we stood. A few more gyrations, a funny twist or two, as if to warn us not to be too confident, and up he went again, but only a short ways, when with an abrupt turn, with his long bill pointing earthwards, down he came, rounding in a circle, and when within a half dozen yards of the oozy ground, pitched backward—you have seen them do this, you old jack hunters, a thousand times, haven't you?—and alighted not 100 paces from the exact spot from which we first flushed him.

We advanced and were congratulating ourselves on getting within an easy shooting distance, when, kersock! Bill's foot went into an old water filled cow track, and with that same little defiant skeape off he went again, zigzagging as before for twenty yards or so, then sailing up into the windy space again. Time and time again did we thus mark him down and flush him, sometimes banging away at him when there was little hope of effect, but oftener allowing him to flush without shooting, for we noticed that his journeyings were becoming more and more abbreviated and felt that he would finally become reckless and prove his own undoing. But he was not ready to succumb yet awhile, and I actually believe we flushed and chased him at least twenty times and for more than an hour, before Bill finally got in a fair quartering shot and over he went, a ruffled bit of white and black and brown, into a shallow puddle between to tussocks of mud and dead grass.

As we reached the spot and gazed down upon the dead bird in his beautiful armor of rosewood, now splotched with blood and his small fan-like tail outspread to its fullest tension by the last rigors of death, and showing the white and black bars so exquisitely marked, with one long bluish leg drawn up spasmodically against his white breast, and the other outstretched half under the muddy waters, I could not help but reflect with what little respect to man exists the greater part of the deity's creation.

Some things seem to be made especially for our benefit, but the countless millions of others, grand and beautiful, have no connection with us or our presence. The jacksnipe cleaves the spring's chilly air like a brown ray from the seat of all life, and the fronds of the polyparous grasses and lichens glow in the gray light along the slough's sedgy banks in the lonely solitude between the bluffs. The graceful bird, and the whole solemn landscape stretching away in waves of a matchless charm, the misty wavering along the woody borders, the majesty of the frowning arch, all these clamor not for the eye of man to admire them, yet against even his will, he stands and looks on in dumb admiration. And yet we think, some of us do, that the whole universe is but a toy for us to play with. All from the cloudy heavens, and its hidden constellations, to the dead jacksnipe, the tiniest tendril of the morass plant, every splash of water, every gust of wind, and yet we are but a grain of sand on the shore's of life's ocean, a thread in the inscrutable mantle in which is wrapped the world, aye, all creation.

And you will recall, too, Bill, how we gathered around the baseburner down in Billy Townsend's gun store that night and related to the crowd of eager comrades, while the poor little jack lay dead upon the floor, of our experience with the first arrival of the spring, the long chase he gave us and how at last you tumbled him into the mud. How each envious, but ambitious sportsman picked the bird up, stroked down his glossy chestnut coat, commented upon his condition, as they whirled him round and round by the toes of one leaden leg, and how they animadverted upon his gamey qualities, and what a flood of reminiscences, true and imaginary stories, that little bunch of carmine stained feathers was responsible for on the self-same memorable and bleak March night!

As I mentioned a week ago Nebraska is surely a favored state. Her resources for health-prolonging pleasures are as numerous as her countless attractions for stockmen and agriculturists. There is no gain saying that sports afield are healthful pleasure of the most pronounced kind, and Nebraska teems with these almost the entire year round. And this leads me to state that 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 little gallinago in both spring and autumn.

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

The snipe arrive here in the spring 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 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 late March of early April morning? 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 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 after the jacks?

The 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 further-most 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 be 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 fifteen feet of you, tilting dudishly back into the reeds as noiseless as a spirit, or continue is 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 angle worms into an indolence that neve fails to fill the gunner's bag. Their slow flip-flap up from 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 lowlands.

Having this article in contemplation I dropped in last night for a chat with Mr. W.T. Brewer—better known as Billy—who is one of the closest students of Nebraska's game life, and one of the best posted in all the state, besides being a crack shot and thorough sportsman, and one who teaches his lore with cheerful patience. As a lover of the jacksnipe, Billy is the most ardent of all my acquaintances. While he enjoys a day in a blind with ducks or geese, a tramp over the broad prairies for chicken or grouse, a struggle in the stubble or lowland bramble for quail, or a ride over the hayfields for plover, as well as any man who lives, his chief passion is for a day on the bog with Mr. Scolopax.

I had Billy soon warmed up to his subject, and in discussing jack shooting he said:

"Even when lean and wild, on a calm day, the snipe does not strain the skill of a good shot, but on a windy day the wild, lean snipe can dart very swiftly across or down wind, and if to this be added rises at long range the shooting is then really difficult, though then, as mentioned before, it is also a test of the gun. When thus wild, the snipe is exceedingly restless and moves about a great deal. It then takes alarm quickly, flies with its bill extended straight ahead, flying so high as mostly to be out of range. It can pitch to the ground from its highest flight, darting down with stiffened wings and lighting with the greatest ease.

"As to snipe shooting and the way of it, the proper manner to shoot them is to go forth and shoot them—in other words, the set manner of doing this thing and that thing as taught by some writers is all very well if they can do no better. There is no rule whereby snipe shooting can be made soft and easy, and there is no sportsman with proper ambition who will care to have his skill less than the best test that the bird can offer. If it is unequal to the test, practice will improve it, and if it will not, there is at least the pleasure of trying to cope with the bird. The proper skill is that which takes the shooting as it comes instead of picking out the easy shots or easy combinations to secure them.

"Snipe shooting as to quantity varies one locality with another more than does any other kind of shooting, for one locality may contain but a few birds to reward the shooter's efforts, while in other localities they may fairly swarm, as in parts of Nebraska and Iowa in the fall and spring months, when the birds are migrating, where they generally remain several weeks enjoying the food abundance and becoming very fat, and some scattered ones may be found all through a mild winter. The heavy rains of all and spring, frequently a downpour for days, soften the fat alluvial prairie lands so that hundreds of square miles are fitted for the snipe's habitat. In particular favorable sections of the prairie, corn and marshy fields, they may at times be found in thousands. A dog in such shooting is in the way except to act as a retriever. There is no woodcraft necessary in such shooting. The shooter walks along till the birds fly up, and so rapidly will he sometimes flush them that at every step or two it is fire and load and fire and load again. At such times the gun becomes to hot to hold in the hands, and the shooter must perforce stop until it cools sufficiently to handle.

"The difficulties of snipe shooting in general have been greatly exaggerated. The lightning zigzag up wind at the start and the swiftness at all times as set forth in print would lead the novice to believe that it was almost beyond the skill of any one without a special "gift" to kill jacks. Some sportsmen peremptorily assert that the shooter should walk down wind, so when the bird rises it will come toward you, and the zigzag is dwelt upon as a thing to conjure with. The fact is, the successful snipe shooter goes in any direction he thinks he is likely to find the birds, regardless of the wind, and he shoots with no more heed to the twisty flight than that it is but a preliminary maneuver of the bird in getting under way, an if it zigs or zags too long he just simply stops it in the process. On raw, windy days, as I said before, particularly when the snipe are first in and they are lean and wary, at flush at long gun shot, it is then difficult shooting, and success is, as it may happen, regardless of rule or no rule, though a small matter of skill is much more effective than is a large quantity of rule.

"The best gun for snipe shooting one day and another is one that is moderately choked or a true cylinder bore, though, as it is most all open shooting, and therefore not so difficult as shooting quail in the brush, good work may be done with a full choke, since you can fetch them at a distance. One pellet is generally sufficient to grass a bird. They are very susceptible to injury, and you will occasionally knock them down at incredible distances. However, it is not every man who can wait on his bird or estimate distances at a glance, so that it is better to have a gun that is available for instant use when the bird rises afar or close by. A twelve-bore is the standard with us, although a sixteen is good, and as to the size of shot, No. 7's, 8's, 9's or 10's are all effective. No. 8's being preferable, I think, for all distances, and with one of those grand old Peters' shells, in which you place your faith, ought to do the job satisfactorily most any time.

"As a bird to use the dog upon, the jack is not in it with quail or chicken. A dog is, in fact, unnecessary, as you can walk them up yourself when they are in, as they are almost entirely birds of the open, and it is great sport to do your own hunting. Cracky! I can hardly await the golden days of October, and to once more hear that little squeak which never fails to start the blood leaping in my veins."