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Blane Klemek column: Sora rails thrive in Minnesota marshland

The elusive sora rail. Submitted photo.

Oh glorious springtime! On my evening walk down the narrow dirt township road that passes by my home, I enjoyed the songs and calls of birds not seen or heard for many months. Indeed, whereas most birds such as American robins, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, Canada geese, and killdeer were last observed just five to six months ago, prior to their annual fall migrations, some avian vocalizations haven't been heard in more than a year.

The courtship calls and flight songs of American woodcock, for example, is an avian arrangement of notes that haven't been heard since March and April 2016. And on my walk just a few days ago, March 28, the male woodcocks' nasally peent calls emitted from the ground, followed by their fascinating aerial courtship flight displays of wing twittering and softly whistled warbles, were all about me as I strolled beside their favorite coverts within nearby mixes of forested wetlands and fields.

It won't be long until other birds return to the northland, too. Shorebirds, wading birds, and other wetland-dependent species of birds will show up soon after the last bit of ice disappears from their favorite wetland and waterway.

One such bird is the tiny and secretive sora rail.

Sora rails, contrary to folklore, do not spend the wintertime hibernating buried in wetland muck underneath the ice.

Of this notion, the late artist/naturalist John J. Audubon wrote: "Many wonderful tales were circulated to convince the world of the truth of this alleged phenomenon; but the fact was, as you will naturally anticipate, that the birds merely shifted their quarters, as no doubt they will continue to do, so long as the climate becomes too cold for them in winter."

In fact the little sora rail, not even nine inches long and three ounces in weight, do indeed migrate — as do other seasonal wetland birds — albeit they often do so in the dark of night.

When the birds are flushed from cover, they appear to be weak fliers, barely flying over the tops of slough grasses and cattails before fluttering quickly into nearby cover. Soras are shy by nature and rarely step far from the protection of dense vegetation.

It's interesting to read the avian species accounts of Audubon's. He held a particular disdain for fallacies often purported by uninformed souls. He further wrote on the subject, "Superstitious notions and absurd fancies occupied the place of accurate knowledge in the minds of people too earnestly engaged in more important pursuits, to attend to the history of the animals around them..."

Regarding the pervading inaccuracies of the time, Audubon wrote of the assigned farces of other species, such as swallows seeking refuge under the ice instead of migrating in the fall; that geese are not the offspring of sea-shells; and of swans (chanting) their own requiem, or allowing hummingbirds to hitch rides on their backs as they fly each year their migratory routes.

Moreover, Audubon wrote sarcastically of such myths that "Students of nature have gradually rectified the various errors into which our ancestors had fallen; and we should now just as readily expect to see a shoal of fishes issuing from beneath the plough, as to see a flock of rails emerge from the mud, shake themselves, and fly off."

Like other species of rails, sora rails are not comfortable foraging in the open and tend to inhabit wetlands overgrown with tall emergent vegetation such as cattail, reed, and sedge. Within such environs the skulking sora hunts for food.

Topping the list of good things to eat include mollusks and insects, especially the aquatic larval forms like dragonfly and mosquito larvae. Later in the summer the birds feast on grains of wild rice and the seeds of sedge, smartweed, and grasses.

Physically, the sora is very adept at life in the marsh. Small and plump, with longish legs and slender non-webbed chicken-like toes, the minute-sized bird deftly navigates the tangles of wetland vegetation as effortlessly as a snake through grass.

They have the ability to practically walk on water, utilizing floating vegetative debris for support as they go about their lives. Soras also negotiate wetland vegetation by clinging to and hopping from plant stem to plant stem, thus making as much use, if not more, of vertical substrate as the horizontal.

If you're lucky enough to catch sight of or hear a sora, you might note its habit of peeking out from behind vegetation as though checking around the corners of a building before venturing onto the street from a back alley; or it belting out its surprisingly loud "whinny" cry at the slightest provocation or disturbance.

With a short and stubby yellow bill, black patch on the face and throat, grayish below, and brownish above with gray cheeks, sora rails are distinctive, despite that fact that both sexes are similar in appearance.

And though mysterious to many people, sora rails are nevertheless common and handsome denizens of our Minnesota marshes. In the coming weeks, as more and more of our seasonal avian migrants find their way back to their northern breeding and nesting grounds, soras and others will soon be here as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.