Chasing Birds: Rails Edition


“Rails” are a family of birds – the Rallidae – that live and breed in marshy wetlands. Sora are the most abundant and most widely distributed North American rail, breeding from across the Canadian boreal forest (and occasionally in to Alaska) to central Arizona.

But being “abundant” and “widely distributed” doesn’t mean “easy to see.” You hear Sora far more often than you see them. And Sora are probably the easiest North American Rail to find.

Sora male, Centennial Marsh, Idaho

Sora male, Centennial Marsh, Idaho

WC spent a day at Centennial Marsh, southeast of Boise, with Sora as one of his primary targets for photos. And, for once, had some modest success. The black face and the bright yellow bill in breeding plumage make this species unmistakeable. When you can see it. The call is equally distinctive, and how the Sora got its name.

They are very rarely in the open. When they do have to cross an open area, they sprint. You think WC is exaggerating?

Sora in stealth mode, bolting across an open area, Centennial Marsh, Idao

Sora in sprint mode, bolting across an open area, Centennial Marsh, Idaho

And their sprinting speed is very impressive. This photo was taken at 1/2000th of a second and you can see motion blur. Sora are much more comfortable skulking in the reeds and grasses. Which makes them a real photography challenge. Most of WC’s Sora shots are variations of this:

Sora in habitat, Centennial Marsh, Idaho

Sora in habitat, Centennial Marsh, Idaho

What made the day special for WC was he found a Sora nest. And watched a Sora pair work on the nest for half an hour.

Sora building nest, Centennial Marsh, Idaho

Sora building nest, Centennial Marsh, Idaho

As hard as Sora are to see and photograph, they are probably the easiest of the Rails. There was a Virginia Rail calling out in the marsh, but WC never saw it. Then there’s the Black Rail. It’s smaller, even more secretive and nocturnal. Only a handful of folks see one in a year. WC certainly has never seen one.

But for now, finding and photographing a Sora was pretty cool.

 

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