Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Virginia Rail

It's spring migration right now in the bird world. Many species across many different groups of birds are moving from their southern overwintering grounds to their northern breeding grounds. One such species is the Virginia Rail.

Virginia Rail Ohio
A few days ago I found myself in my hometown of Circleville, in Pickaway County, Ohio. I decided to head to the Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park, a local city-owned park. This park has a small marsh with some open water, and last year I had found Soras in the marsh (which you can read about at this link!). This marsh had only recently been built when the city purchased the land a few years ago, and I was curious if Soras were utilizing this marsh every year, or if last year had just been a random occurrence. As I walked up to the wood deck which overlooks the marsh, I took out my phone and played the call of a Sora to see if one would call back from the reeds. Instead of a Sora calling back, a curious Virginia Rail ran straight out of the reeds. I will admit, I was not expecting that to happen!

Virginia Rail Central Ohio
The Virginia Rail is secretive species of rail, a group of marsh-loving birds who are known for being shy and hard to see. The Virginia Rail is a wide-ranging species, which can essentially be found across the lower 48 states in appropriate habitat at some point during the year. Generally speaking, they overwinter along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts of the US, and breed throughout the west and the northern portion of the eastern US.

Virginia Rail Habitat
Can you spot the rail?

The Virginia Rail is a wetland-dependent species. They mostly inhabit freshwater marshes, but occasionally can be found in saltwater or brackish marshes, mostly during the winter months. They require emergent vegetation for shelter. The browns, tans, and grays of the Virginia Rail's plumage allow it to essentially disappear among the grasses, sedges, and cattails that grow in the shallow areas of marshes. When rails feel threatened, they will often simply freeze among the cover they are currently hiding in. When a rail freezes in a stand of dense reeds or grasses, it can be nearly impossible to see the rail unless you already had eyes on it.

Virginia Rails
The cautious Virginia Rail looks to the sky to scan for any potential aerial predators.

There are 5 species of rail that can be found in Ohio (I'm excluding the Common and Purple Gallinules and the American Coot from this number; although these 3 species are in the rail family Rallidae, they aren't what most birders think of when they think of rails). Of those 5 species, the Sora is the most common and the Yellow Rail is the rarest. The Virginia Rail is the second most common species of rail in Ohio, and one of the 3 species which regularly breed in the state (the other 2 are the Sora and King Rail). How widespread and abundant are Virginia Rails in Ohio? No one really knows. Rails are super secretive, and this makes estimating populations difficult. The vast majority of them probably go unnoticed. If you check the reports of Virginia Rails on eBird, you will notice that the vast majority of reports are centered around urban areas. Does this mean that rails love urban areas? No; urban areas simply have a higher concentration of birders. More birders in an area means more eyes to find secretive species like Virginia Rails.

Virginia Rail Pickaway County

The Virginia Rail is an omnivore, but they focus mostly on arthropods. Like other water-tied birds with long beaks, the Virginia Rail will probe into the mud in an attempt to find various arthropods. They also feed on arthropods that are either on the surface of the water or the ground, such as spiders and beetles. The individual pictured above was actually foraging farther from the water than I thought it would. When I took this picture, the rail was foraging about 10 feet from the water's edge. There were at least 2 Virginia Rails present in this marsh, along with at least 2 Soras, and they seemed to have established trails for them to move between foraging areas. They would feed in an area of dense grasses before darting quickly along an obvious narrow trail devoid of plants to another dense foraging area.

Virginia Rail
As I mentioned in my Sora post last year, I absolutely love rails. For one, they're adorable. But I'm also drawn to the fact they are secretive and difficult to find and see. As a birder, it's always rewarding to find a rail species of any kind in a marsh, and even more rewarding to actually lay eyes on one. I'm really hoping that the two Virginia Rails in this Pickaway County marsh decide to breed here, but they might also simply be migrating through to a more northerly location. The creation of this marsh (and the surrounding prairie they planted) by the city of Circleville has turned out to be a wonderful action. This marsh and the open water in the center has proven to be a migration stopover for many species, including Virginia Rails, Soras, Pied-Billed Grebes, Horned Grebes, Blue-Winged Teals, and many other species. The surrounding planted prairie has attracted species such as the Savannah Sparrow and the declining Henslow's Sparrow. This prairie and marsh only make up half of the Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park, however. The other half is a well-established wet forest. This forest attracts many migrating songbirds and is a great place to bird in the spring and fall.

Do you love rails too? If so, I highly recommend following Dr. Auriel Fournier on Twitter (@RallidaeRule). She is an ornithologist conducting research on rails. If you aren't interested in rails yet, you will be once you follow her!

Thanks for reading!

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