Sora
Sora
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With the onset of spring nesting season, songbirds become the major avian focus for many birders. After all, a brightly plumaged Canada Warbler or fire-red Scarlet Tanager is definitely a visual treat. But other less conspicuous species lead relatively obscure lives in our local marshes and swamps.

In this unglamorous category, I’m thinking about the Green Heron and a couple other marsh birds that consistently avoid easy observation. A smallish heron with short legs, Green Herons are common breeders in coastal and inland wetlands. A dark cap and distinctive chestnut throat and chest help to identify this charismatic species; its namesake greenish back can appear blue from certain lighting angles or conditions.

Green Herons are patient stalkers of small fish, spiders, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles and rodents, to name a few. Standing stock still or creeping slowly at the edge of a pond, this heron lunges and darts its head to grasp prey with its heavy bill. Sometimes using “bait” to attract a meal, it may drop a feather or twig into the water to lure fish within striking distance. Green Herons hunt during day or night in areas of shallow water. When alarmed, this heron gives an explosive “skeow” call.

The Virginia Rail is another hideaway species that is more often heard than seen. A rather vocal bird, this rail produces “kik, kik, kiddick, kiddick” calls and descending notes of oinking pig-like grunts that belie its meager 10-inch stature. Mostly found in cattail vegetation with standing water less than 6 inches deep and a muddy bottom, these rails build nests on floating mats of vegetation or just above the water surface. Nest construction takes about a week and commences when the first egg is laid. The monogamous pairs vigorously defend their territories with grunting duets during the breeding season.







As typical of most rails, the Virginia’s movements are abrupt and somewhat jerky, flicking their tail as they walk. The old expression “thin as a rail” is an apt term for these birds since their laterally compressed body shape enables headlong penetration of dense wetland vegetation. Though they are capable of sustained flight during migration, their summer marsh flights are weak and short-distanced.

The most abundant and widespread North American rail, the Sora, or “marsh chicken,” is a small, chubby rail with a compact, yellow “candy corn” bill, black mask and throat patch. The short tail is often cocked upward, revealing its gleaming white under-surface. Equipped with extremely long toes, Soras tread lightly across lily pads to rake and garner water plant seeds. Aquatic insects, including dragonflies, snails and beetles, supplement that diet.

When to see or (more likely) hear a Sora? Early morning and late afternoon are perhaps the best times, when they venture from cover to look for food. In my limited musical opinion, the Sora’s chuckled “whee-hee-hee-hee-hee” whinny is one of the most intriguing and hilarious of birdsongs, possibly deserving of a Bird Grammy Award for “most inventive song from a swamp environment.”

Some final words regarding several species of biting ticks that have become permanent fixtures of outdoor pursuits such as birding in Maine. Some general preventive suggestions are worth mentioning: If at all possible, avoid tick-infested areas altogether (a tricky proposition for us birders and gardeners to accomplish). Use a chemical repellent with DEET, permethrin or picaridin. Wear light-colored protective clothing. Tuck pant legs into socks. Check yourself, children, and your pets daily for ticks and carefully remove any ticks.