A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Wilson’s Snipe is a moderately common winter visitor to Sonoma County. Most birds have arrived by mid-October and left again by the middle of April, although some may arrive as early as September and a few may linger into early May. Usually seen where there is soft, exposed mud at the edges of ponds, marshes, and streams. Prefers areas with low vegetation or stubble. Uses freshwater marshes and brackish expanses. Sometimes seen in flooded fields. Jerky probing for food is typical. Bold but cryptic patterning can make a snipe very hard to spot. Often missed entirely until flushed. When flushed, erupts into frantic, angular flight, accompanied by a loud Skrate! Solitary or in small groups of three to seven birds or so, but does not really flock or actively associate with other shorebirds. During display flight, tail feathers make an eerie sound, sometimes audible at night. Sibley describes the sound as a “low pulsing whistle.”

Coloration and silhouette distinctive. Look for a barrel-chested, short-necked, small-headed bird with short legs and a very long bill. Very dark crown set off by pale striping and a crown stripe. Face lighter but also with white to buff striping. Back is variously barred, but also with striking buffy stripes. White underneath, but heavily barred on the flanks. Rusty and black pattern at the rump. Rusty tail. Legs yellow. Sexes similar. Juveniles not markedly different from adults. Most likely to be confused with Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) or Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus), but the snipe is a smaller, more skittish bird, its color is much warmer, and it does not congregate in large flocks or mix with other shorebirds like the dowitchers. Wilson’s Snipe is rarely, if ever, encountered at the seashore.  

Older sources will list this bird as Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). The American Ornithologist’s Union split Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe into two species in 2002. Formerly considered a single species--Common Snipe. Common Snipe is now used for the very similar European species. The British Ornithologist’s Union appears to consider the North American bird (our Wilson’s Snipe) as a subspecies of Common Snipe. 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 58 (as Common Snipe)

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 237

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 190

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, pg. 204

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 138 (mentioned under Common Snipe)

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 242-243

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 165 (as Common Snipe)

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 179

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 184

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 64-67 (general notes on shorebird ID), p. 66 (as Common Snipe)

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 210-241 (general notes on shorebird ID), pp. 109, 222

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 117-118

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. XX

Paulson, Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide, 2005, pp. 323-325

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 140

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 150, 158

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 138 (as Common Snipe)

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 172

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 283

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 138

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Wilson’s Snipe



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Wilson’s Snipe, Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, December 8, 2009

Wilson’s Snipe

Gallinago delicata

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 23, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County