A blog about the natural world around us, whether it be birds, insects, plants, geology, or more!
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
The past two weeks have been the peak of rail migration here in Ohio. I saw report after report, photo after photo, of Virginia Rails and Soras from around the state posted on various Facebook groups such as Birding Ohio. I absolutely adore rails; an infamous Black Rail which showed up outside of my hometown in 2008 was responsible for converting me from a birdwatcher to a birder. And of course, with all the reports I was seeing this year, I just had to go out and try to find a few rails myself. I traveled to a few good locations, but came up empty each time. And then I stopped by a local city park in Circleville, Ohio...
The typical view of a Sora in dense reeds.
The Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park (what a name) lies on the edge of Circleville in Pickaway County. It's half forest and half prairie. In the middle of the prairie section is a small pond surrounded by reeds and cattails. I stopped by to do some birding in the forest, and I checked the pond first to see if there were any ducks hanging out. All of the sudden I heard the distinctive whinny call of a Sora! After searching the known haunts of Soras and Virginia Rails in Pickaway County, and coming up empty handed each time, there was a Sora hanging out right in a heavily-traveled park! And then I heard another whinny; there was more than one! I didn't have my camera on me, so I decided to head back out the next day to try and get some photos. After arriving, I carefully walked the edge of the pond, searching for any movement among the reeds. After a few moments, I caught a glimpse of something moving. A Sora was walking through the reeds, heading away from me.
I positioned myself in a location that was a bit more open. I took out my phone and played a call of a Sora in an attempt to draw one a bit closer. To my surprise one came running at me! He looked at me, apparently decided I wasn't a threat, and then began foraging only a few feet away from me. My camera shutter flying, and my hands shaking from excitement, I took photo after photo.
He moved into the open a few times and allowed me to take photos I never thought I would get to take. The Sora is a common species of rail. Rails are birds in the family Rallidae. Members of Rallidae are duck-size-and-smaller birds which are mostly tied to wetlands, especially here in the US. The Sora is actually not as closely related to the Virginia and King Rails as one might expect, but is instead more closely related to the Moorhens (Gallinules) and Coots. The most common rail in Ohio is by far the familiar American Coot, but the Sora takes second place. The issue with most rails (American Coot aside) is that they are incredibly secretive and shy birds, which means they often escape notice even though they move through Ohio in pretty good numbers. Soras are a bit more outgoing and can often be seen by the patient observer. Virginia Rails are a bit more secretive and harder to see, but by far the hardest rails to lay eyes on are the Black and Yellow Rails. Black Rails and Yellow Rails are scarcely the size of a sparrow, and trying to see one of those moving through 5 foot tall reeds is a bit of a challenge. Those two species are incredibly rare here in Ohio, but they are found every several years. No doubt many more migrate through each year than are found. But back to the Sora!
The Sora breeds across much of the northern half of the US, including most of Ohio aside from the southern portion of the state. They breed in freshwater marshes, including places here in Ohio such as Calamus Swamp, Battelle-Darby Creek, and the marshes of Lake Erie. They overwinter in the marshes of the southern coastal US, Central America, and the extreme northern parts of South America. Like all rails, the Sora has extremely large feet that are adapted to walking over bits of broken reeds as you can see in the photo above. The larger surface area of their feet makes it easier to stay above the water without sinking in, but if it comes to it they are pretty good swimmers as well. Soras prefer shallow water that is less than 20 inches deep, so their large feet really compliment their habitat preference.
The Sora spends most of its time moving stealthily among dense cattails and other reedy wetland plants, foraging on a range of food types including snails, spiders, insects, and assorted plant material (mostly seeds). The Sora is a migratory species, and they migrate through Ohio from April to May and again from August to mid October. Those which nest in Ohio start as early as late April/early May. I really hope that the individuals I saw and heard are trying to nest in the park. The pond and edge wetland are 2.5 acres (1 hectare) in size, and this seems to be the lower limit in area that they will nest in. Soras face the threat of habitat destruction (and what species doesn't anymore?) as acre after acre of wetland habitat is destroyed in the US. The pond these Soras were hanging out in was actually recently constructed as part of a habitat restoration project (it had been an agricultural field for decades). Hopefully these, or future, Soras take advantage of this new wetland.
I have to admit, I was shaking from adrenaline as I was taking these photos. As I mentioned before, I LOVE rails, and I never thought I would have one foraging essentially at my feet, let alone getting a chance to photograph one like this. The Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park is a special place. Not only are there Soras and Wilson's Snipes hanging out in the wetland during some parts of the year, but the seriously declining Henslow's Sparrow, along with the more common Savannah Sparrow, breeds in the surrounding restored prairie. The other half of the park, a wet forest, offers a stopover location for warblers and other migrant songbirds within the sea of corn and soybean fields which surround it. And apparently (as I just saw my first one at this location after years of birding the patch), a Red-Headed Woodpecker, a species in decline here in Ohio, is setting up shop in the park! It's a lovely park to bird at, and I can't wait to see what other interesting species show up!