November 13, 2014
Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Snipe

I recently learned a new word.  Walking through a thick carpet of autumn willow leaves fallen over the muddy margins of a stock pond, I nearly stepped on a Wilson’s Snipe.  As the snipe exploded from beneath my boots, I exclaimed a couple old words I can’t repeat here.  Snipe will do that to you with their cryptic coloration, and I returned home to do a little research on avian camouflage.  “Procryptic” is the new word I learned.

Wilson’s Snipe have returned to many aquatic areas of the Valley to overwinter.  They are one of several bird species, Montezuma Quail being the most notorious, that depend on camouflage rather than flight to escape predators.  Snipe are mottled and drab below, but from above they show a few bold horizontal stripes on a background of subtle vermiculations and chevroned cross-hatchings.  Typically they are much more colorful, from above—bright ecrus and rich russets—than the guide books show or your memory of fleeting looks at rapidly departing birds recalls.

The bird I flushed was “hidden in plain sight,” crouched in a depression in the mud amidst bright gold and orange October leaves.  After it spooked, and after I recovered from my adrenaline rush, even though I had noted exactly where it landed again, it took fifteen minutes of close ground inspection with my binoculars to find it.  That’s “procryptic,” concealing coloration which protects birds from predators, and the opposite of “anticryptic” which conceals diverse species from lizards to leopards as they lie in wait for unsuspecting prey to come to them.

Protective coloration runs in families.  Often those families of birds that are procryptic are those hardest for us to identify to species.  Think grouse, shorebirds, owls, goatsuckers, and sparrows.  These families are difficult for predators to separate from their background, and their protective coloration likewise makes it difficult for us to distinguish them one from another.

Camouflage works in three ways:  background mimicry, countershading, and disruptive patterning.  Background mimicry is just what it sounds like, great examples being bitterns which stretch their vertically striped necks to the fullest against their reedy habitat and Snow Buntings and ptarmigans that molt to match their plumage to the season.  Countershading, best exemplified by shorebirds, is at work for species that are
dark on top, light below.  Disruptive patterning arranges plumage highlights in contrasting colors and irregular shapes which make it difficult for predators to separate a bird’s forms from similar background features.  Grassland sparrows come to mind.

And then there’s the snipe which seem to employ all three of these strategies at once.  I’ve been on autumn field trips where the leader has pointed out a snipe at medium range and paused until all have seen it.  It’s usually a long pause highlighted by someone, often me, exclaiming that they were looking right at it the whole time and didn’t recognize the shape.  I’ve also been on field trips where someone nearly steps on a snipe, the whole group hears a new word, and that word is not “procryptic.”