Archived Mountain Voices

Sneaky snipe stamps scouts

Until I started birding seriously as an adult, I didnÕt know that snipe actually existed. For years that bird was categorized in my mind with other mythic critters that included hoop snakes, side-hill winders, and dragons.

Indeed, when I was a boy, "We're going on a snipe hunt" was a euphemism for an elaborate hoax perpetrated upon unsuspecting members of Cub Scout troops or any other group involving young people on their first overnight outing. Toward evening of the first day in camp, the group leader and older assistants would gather their charges and announce in hushed tones that a special treat was in store Ñ a night hunt for the wily and delicious snipe.

Each wide-eyed Cub Scout would be issued a burlap sack and instructed in the rules and techniques of snipe hunting, which weren't complicated: first, the bags were to be held open near the ground; and second, the bag holder must not move or utter a sound until a snipe flew into it.

After full dark had descended, the young hunters were distributed at intervals in the woods, along with further reminders regarding the virtues of silence and patience. When youÕre 10 years old or less, perhaps on your first outing into the Òwilderness,Ó abruptly deposited in the dark forest alone and responsible for maintaining your link in the groupÕs communal snipe trap, you undertake such business with great seriousness. You fully intended to stand there in silence until a snipe Ð- whatever that might be Ñ flew into your bag and you toted it proudly back to camp.

So, you remain there at your designated post, listening to eerie night sounds, trying to ignore mosquitoes, waiting for snipe. After an hour or maybe several hours, it begins to dawn on you that Ñ whatever a snipe might be Ñ it is most unlikely the thing is going to hurdle through the darkened universe and fly smack-dab into the small bag you happen to be holding.

At that point you tramp back to camp, tired and embarrassed, but a little wiser in the ways of the world. As you listen to the laughter of the older boys, you promise yourself that next time youÕll be one of the fellows waiting by the campfire for the kids left holding the bag.

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Like the closely related American woodcock, a snipe is long-billed and short-tailed, with brown-streaked upper parts that serve as effective camouflage. They breed from the Great Lakes region into northern Canada but winter throughout the southeastern United States. They remain here in the lower elevations of the Smokies region so long as the damp meadows, bogs, and edges of the waterways they frequent remain unfrozen. My favorite area for observing them is at the Cherokee mother town site of Kituwha (also known locally as GovernorÕs Island or Ferguson Fields) alongside old U.S. 19 between Bryson City and Cherokee.

Normally, snipe are what hunters call Òtight sitters.Ó That is, they rely on their protective coloring and ability to remain motionless for concealment. They are literally Òwalked upÓ at the last moment before you step on them. Then they explode from cover with rasping Òscaip É scaip É scaipÓ calls.

Their swift zigzagging flight patterns make them a difficult target.
Several years ago, I decided to go on a snipe ÒhuntÓ in the Kituwha fields. Armed only with binoculars, I walked alongside the muddy sloughs that crisscross the area.

In one of the large pastures near the dairy barns, I jumped the largest wisp of snipe IÕve ever encountered. (I donÕt know why, but flocks of snipe are called Òwisps,Ó just as flocks of crows and geese are properly referred to as ÒcovensÓ and Ògaggles,Ó respectively.) There were 50 or so birds in each of the five distinct wisps I located that day.

Many years after standing with my fellow Cub Scouts in the darkened woodlands waiting for snipe that never appeared, I had spotted enough of them in an hour to fill all of our burlap bags to capacity.

IÕll close with this footnote. Recently, a fellow I was discussing my youthful snipe hunting experience with observed that, ÒContrary to popular belief burlap bags arenÕt the best way to catch them. What you really need is a dozen or so skyhooks and about 100 yards of clothesline. You snag them with the hooks and pull them in with the line.Ó

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace KephartÕs Our Southern Highlanders and James MooneyÕs History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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