Ghost of the Marsh: In pursuit of the elusive sora rail at Summer Lake | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Ghost of the Marsh: In pursuit of the elusive sora rail at Summer Lake

The sora rail, known as the most common rail in North America actually is surprisingly hard to come across.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the sora rail as, “a small, secretive bird of freshwater marshes."

"The sora is the most common and widely distributed rail in North America. Its distinctive descending whiney call can be easily heard from the depths of the cattails, but actually seeing the little marsh-walker is much more difficult.”

That, dear readers, is a gross understatement. I have been searching for this "most common and widely distributed" bird for over 60 years, and I have yet to see one out in the open to photograph. In all those years I have visited sora habitat around the US of A—from New Mexico to Arizona to California to Oregon to Washington, over to Nevada and Utah, I've always come up with sounds, but no adequate sights. Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are two of my most visited sites.

So you can imagine my amazement and delight when I opened an email from Mary Webster the other day and found her images of the sora. Wow! But it wasn't a piece-of-cake for her either; she had to work for it.

"We got up at 3:45 a.m. to get to the meeting place by 4:15 a.m. as requested to take a field trip with  ODFW biologist Cathy Nowack,” Webster wrote.

“This field trip was to hear the dawn chorus over the marsh and to specifically see bitterns, Virginia rails & soras. I had seen bitterns a few times and a V. rail once at Summer Lake, but never a sora and I wanted very much to see them all. She pointed out the various calls as we walked along in the dim light before dawn. I expressed my desire to see a sora, and she said she would try to draw one near. She had an iPad-type device that she could use to scroll to the various birds and then project a call. The bitterns could have cared less, but she managed to call a sora for us, and they came through the reeds and cattails up to where we were standing. She said the saying, “Thin as a rail” comes from these birds that are thin enough to slip through the vegetation in the marsh."

Adult sora rails are a little over seven inches high and about 12 inches long. They have an oversized, bright-yellow bill, which is about all there is to give one away in a marsh; everything else blends in with the vegetation as the bird slides through the marsh like a ghost. Momma and poppa rail look alike. After mating, the female can lay up to 12 eggs (so, why can't I see one?)

After leaving the nest—which people tell me resembles a well-made cup of woven marsh plants—the kids don't yet have the bright yellow bill. In fact, they look so much like their home, it's nearly impossible to see one. Fully grown adults tip the scales at around 6 ounces.

Now you understand why they're so difficult to see. Then there's that getting up at 3 a.m. business to accommodate the activity of the little beauties...

Soras, whether they are walking or swimming, can find plenty to eat. Snails, crustaceans, spiders, insects like grasshoppers, beetles, dragonflies (adults and nymphs) and mosquito larva are all part of the sora diet. They also dine on the seeds of smartweed, bulrushes, sedges, cultivated grasses, wild rice, and duckweed.

Way back in the 1860's, when John James Audubon was painting his magnificent bird renderings, he wrote that soras were believed to, “bury themselves in the mud at the approach of cold weather for the purpose of spending the winter in a state of torpidity."

He clarified that, "many wonderful tales were circulated to convince the world of the truth of this alleged phenomenon; but the fact was, as you will naturally anticipate, that the birds merely shifted their quarters as the climate became too cold."

Because rails can hide in an instant in their marshy habitat, raptors, such as the northern harrier and red-tailed hawks, rarely find one to grab. If they relax and show themselves for an instant, you can bet a peregrine falcon will scoop one up in a hurry. When you come right down to it, the rails’ most dangerous enemy is the mink.

These bloodthirsty members of the weasel family are adept at capturing and devouring a rail—in a hurry. You can say the same for skunks and coyotes, that’s if momma rail is dumb enough to wander out in the open.

If you have some wonderful secret for finding a sora, other than the recording that brought Mary's out in the open, please let me know and we'll head for Summer Lake.

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