Rail Fest

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.

51 thoughts on “Rail Fest

  1. Sie ist sehr ähnliche unserer Wasserralle , zumindest deiner Beschreibung nach. Normaler Weise hörst du nur ihr auffälliges Rufen, wenn du sie auch nicht siehst ist sie dennnoch in der Nähe. Nun ist ausdauer gefragt und ein gutes Auge , dann kannst du sie so erkennen wie auf deinen sehr schönen Fotos. Sie läuft am Rand des Schlif entlang und das sehr vorsichtig. Bei der kleinsten Störung ist sie wieder verschwunden , häufig kommt sie sehr vorsichtig zurück. Ein sehr schöner Beitrag liebe Tanja, mit tollen Fotos.
    Liebe Grüße Werner

    Liked by 4 people

    • Vielen Dank, lieber Werner. Genauso ist es. Ich habe Wasserrallen nur einige Male in Deutschland gesehen, und dann nur kurz, doch habe ich sie öfter gehört. Ich war wahrscheinlich nie zur richtigen Zeit am richtigen Ort unterwegs, wo sie sich vielleicht auch etwas mehr heraustrauen.
      Herzlichen Gruß zurück,

      Liked by 2 people

      • Danke, lieber Michael. Die Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede zwischen den verschiedenen Kontinenten finde ich auch faszinierend. In Nordamerika gibt es sogar 5 verschiedene Rallenarten! Ich kenne bisher nur die Virginiarallen, hoffe irgendwann mal die anderen zu Gesicht zu bekommen.
        Lieben Gruss,


  2. These are wonderful, kudos for sighting and capturing them. I am in a ‘rail’ region, we have four of the six rails around me, and I have yet to see one of them. You are right, they are very secretive….and definitely elusive for me. I will continue to search the marshes with my binoculars!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Donna. I hope you will find them. So far, the Virginia Rail is the only rail species I have seen (not counting soras), but it would be thrilling to find some of the others. But I will have to travel elsewhere for that pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no idea. Great captures to introduce me to a bird I didn’t know existed. The bird calls were pretty strange and you are correct… I never would have thought of it as a bird! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to be able to introduce a new bird to you, Gunta. I just checked its distribution, and it does occur in Oregon, so maybe you will see one there one of these days. Or hear one, now that you know what to listen for. 🙂


  4. Wow, Tanja, those rails sure do make amazing sounds! Thanks for posting. I had not even heard of a rail before! I’m glad you had the chance to be near them. We need a bit of nature inspiration these days, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are fun to watch, Julie. I personally need inspiration from nature every day, even if it’s “only” through the window on a chilly day.
      And I wholeheartedly agree with your statement. All I want to do is immerse myself in nature and not pay attention to the horrible human-caused things that are going on. 😢

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed reading your post, however —–

    I am SOOOO jealous! Three rails at one time? That is almost being greedy.

    We see rails mostly during winter migration and it is always a treat to hear them calling in the wetlands. Even though, as you point out, they are not exactly melodious calls!

    Have a great week!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As far as I know, I’ve never seen a Rail. But, when I listened to their sounds, they were familiar. I discovered that two birds I regularly see — Coots and Gallinules — are in the same family. Their sounds are fully as amusing; there’s just no mistaking them. Of course, neither of those birds is as shy as these seem to be. While their sounds are more like the Coots and Gallinules, I wondered at first if your Rails might be related to Bitterns or Snipes. Their behavior and appearance are a bit like those birds.

    I found that we do have Rail species here, including the Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris). I’ll have to look for them this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never seen a rail but I think I did hear one or two over the years. I looked at the distribution map on “All About Birds” and see that they breed here. It is interesting to see that in much of the country they either head far north or stay in the south with a big empty area mid-U.S. I spend so much time chasing frogs that I must come close to one or two but they’ve evaded me to this point. Lucky you!

    Liked by 1 person

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