Virginia Rails are known as solitary and secretive denizens of marshes (their scientific name Rallus limicola literally translates as mud-dwelling rail), but during certain seasons they seem to forget about their secretive natures and not only show their furtive selves to appreciative eyes, but even convene for rail parties.
Contrary to their name’s suggestion, their geographic distribution is not limited to Virginia. They happen to occur in Colorado, where I have been fortunate enough to observe their late winter forays from dense stands of cattails out into the open at one of my favorite local nature preserves, Fountain Creek Regional Park. On a few occasions this February, I was happy to observe not one or two, but three rails venturing out into the golden morning light. As the lengthening days and strengthening sun cause the formerly frozen water to trickle through the wetlands, the rails seem to enjoy rising with the solar orb and absorbing its warmth. In what might be an early case of spring fever with exhibitionist tendencies, they don’t mind a multiple-person audience, even if that audience is associated with clicking cameras.
From the tip of the beak to the end of the tail Virginia Rails measure 9.5 inches (24 cm) and weigh 3 ounces (85 g). Like all members of the family Rallidae they are endowed with an anatomy uniquely suited to maneuvering through dense marsh thickets. With laterally compressed bodies, forehead feathers especially adapted to the stresses of winding through dense vegetation, strong leg muscles, and long toes, they prefer walking to flying and are able to remain on top of soft mud, which their long beaks probe for plants and small animals.
I suspect they feel more at ease with spectators this early in the year because they aren’t yet consumed with worries about finding the right mate, building a nest, and or keeping their babies safe. And so they wade, stalk, or run in between the cattails’ wilted stems and forage for half-frozen, crunchy morsels of food. When found by a sunbeam, their ruddy body plumage sparkles; their red eyes glow.
At this time of year they are still mostly quiet, but occasionally will emit their signature vocalizations: piglike grunts, or metallic tick-it sounds. Sounds most of us don’t associate with or attribute to birds. If you would like to hear them, follow this link to recordings by the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s worth your time!
And when you next take a walk in a wetland, keep your eyes and ears open for these marsh beauties and maybe you, too, will get to celebrate a rail fest.
To enlarge a photo, click on it.