Friday, April 27, 2012

Virginia Rail

Reading reports of several species we lack for our eBird list on the MOU listserv, Erika and I drove on Tuesday to the Old Highway 77 Bridge in the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. We strolled out to the end of an elevated walkway that leds to an observation point in the marsh along the edge of the Minnesota River. At the observation deck, several birders patiently tallied birds. "Virginia Rail!" exclaimed one of our companions. "Where?" we asked in unison. "Right behind that first clump of reeds" came the reply. (How nice sharp eyesight would be again...) You can see the Virginia Rail feeding in the marsh in the center of the photo above. Look for its orange-red bill. Sometimes the ripples of water made as it walked across puddles located this secretive bird.
Finally the rail walked across an open area. When given a choice, the bird remained in the shade and walked into the densest of cattails. The rail can remain in the reeds because the body is laterally compressed. In other words, the rail is narrow. Rails also have flexible vertebrae so they can make their way around the stalks. Virginia Rails are fairly common in Minnesota marshes, but are more often heard than seen. They also often respond to taped calls, as did the Virginia Rail in the lower photo (from South Dakota). Some birders disapprove of playing tapes, so curtesy usually demands you ask for an OK if you and to try to attract rails. Rails do not always respond. The rail in the top two photos were found without the aid of a tape.
Virginia Rails are monogamous. They often build dummy nests in their territories. Young leave the nest immediately upon hatching, though both parents continue to care for them. Virginia Rails are so secure in their wetland tangles that they are able to undergo two annual molts. Their late summer molt leaves them flightless, as they lose their wing and tail feathers simultaneously (Conway 1995). Even when they are not molting, Virginia Rails usually run from danger.

Most field guides do not show Virginia Rails with bright bills like these. I assume this bright color indicates the rails are courtshiping. Usually to locate rails, you must listen for their grunting duets.  This recording is courtesy of Thayer Birding Software, Birds of North America for Windows, Gold Edition. (Mac versions are also available.)

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