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Natural North Dakota

Snipes, Nighthawks, and Bitterns


If you have some wetlands, wet meadows, fens, and the like around your area, now might be a good time to go check them out.  

It is even worth a short drive to one of these areas. With the migratory birds back for the summer, there is much to see in these wet areas.  And if you visit them in the early morning or evening, it will be a noisy place, with all the birds declaring their amorous interests or staking out their turf.  At times, it can be hard to sort out individual birdcalls. However, a few of these calls and sounds are quite distinct and interesting.

The common snipe produces one of these interesting sounds.  Snipes are brown shorebirds about the size of a killdeer. The courtship display of the males involves the bird flying high up in the sky, followed by a flying dive.  As the bird dives, the air flowing through the outer tail feathers produces what has been describe as a “hu-hu-hu-hu-hu” or a “woop-woop-woop-woop-woop.”

Many of you are, no doubt, familiar with nighthawks.  They are not restricted to wet areas. They can be found in a wide range of habitats across the state.  Nighthawks are perhaps best known for flying overhead during the evening hours, in the urban as well as rural areas, and vocalizing by producing the characteristic nasal “peent-peent” or “beer-beer” call.  

Like the snipe, the male nighthawk’s courtship display also involves a distinctive sound produced from the air rushing through the bird’s feathers.  The males will fly high in the sky, often calling frequently. They may then then go into a dive. At the bottom of the dive, he will turn abruptly upwards.  As the nighthawk turns upwards, the air rushing through the feathers produces what is often referred to as a “boom.” A “pfroooom” may be a more accurate description.  Better yet, it sounds like the bird let out a short burst of bad gas!

Those are certainly interesting audio components to the male courtship displays.  But the most intriguing and iconic call emanating from area marshes during the spring and early summer is arguably that of the American bittern.  For those of you unfamiliar with this species, it is a brown colored relative of herons and egrets. They are heard much more frequently than they are seen because they stay well hidden amongst the vegetation.  No doubt many of you first learned this bird as the “slough pumper.” That is pretty descriptive of their call. The call has also been described as a “loud, guttural pumping,” or a “stake driver.”

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

To hear snipe winnowing click on this link


To hear a nighthawk call and booming click on this link


To hear an American bittern call click on this link



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