Virginia Rail

A Note About Late Summer Wetlands in Central Ohio

As I write this, the Honda Wetlands, my favorite marshy area, has been drying up.  August has seen a steady decline in the amount of free water standing among the cat-tails there.

I took most of the pictures in this post a couple of weeks ago, when the water level was higher, at the time of my last marsh bird post.  Don’t rush right out and try to see these birds now- they could very well be elsewhere.

And now, on to our featured bird!

Virginia Rail

Rails, like other marsh birds, can be elusive.  Not a few birders come to the Honda Wetlands specifically to see one of these birds.

Earlier this month, I was quite lucky and saw a number of marsh birds that I thought would be harder to see.  I’m guessing that a shrinking amount of open water had something to do with this.  And perhaps younger birds behave differently than adults- in this case, juveniles were easier to spot than their parents.

It’s not particularly wise to generalize across a whole family of birds, but Rails often live in dense vegetation near water, have an omnivorous diet, and are quite shy.  Unless you frequent marshy areas, chances are you haven’t seen many of them.  I hadn’t, until this year.

Virginia Rails are very well-adapted to their environment.  They have large feet and long toes for walking on marshy ground and aquatic vegetation.  They are narrow when viewed head-on, which facilitates moving through dense foliage.  Their forehead feathers are robust, allowing them to push their heads through such plants as reeds and cat-tails.  Their bill is fairly long for finding food in mud or water.  Give a chicken a long bill and they might resemble this bird.

There were a couple of adult Virginia Rails in the Honda Wetlands this July, but, true to form, they weren’t easy to get a good look at.  This picture is rather typical of the murky views I’d glimpse:

These birds felt like staying in the cat-tails much of the time.  It turns out that they were raising a family there, and even then, they were quite secretive.  They built multiple nests, only one of which actually contained eggs.

In August, the water level receded, meaning there were less places to hide in the marsh while feeding.  Also, a few young Virginia Rails suddenly appeared.  These juveniles were less shy than their parents, which made photography much less frustrating.  Here are 3 in the same picture.

These birds are rather precocial.  This means that, unlike Robins for instance, they leave the nest quickly and fend for themselves.  The day after they were hatched, they were out among the cat-tails and searching for food on their own.  How’s that for an abbreviated childhood?

Notice how big the feet are on these birds.  I’m sure it makes walking around in the muck a lot easier. If their feet remind you of Coot feet, that makes sense- Coot are a member of the Rail family.

When the light was right, you could see their eye clearly- a blue or gray iris.

One of these juveniles in particular was quite calm about being near the boardwalk where we birders stood, cameras clicking.  It would forage so close that I’d have to reduce the magnification of my lens at times.  This particular bird seemed to limp slightly, but this didn’t interfere with it finding food.

This bird looked quite handsome with the various patterns its feathers sported.

It would often probe around the base of cat-tails for food.

Further out in the marsh, one of the adults showed itself- perhaps seeing the kids doing alright out in the open relaxed this one somewhat.  Notice the rich auburn plumage and bright orange bill.

Stretching- I bet that feels good!

Here’s one starting to take off back into the cat-tails.

These are fascinating birds to watch.  I’m glad they decided to come out for a stroll!