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Klemek column: Two secretive species of wetland birds

It's not a common snipe, but this Wilson's snipe was photographed at Morris Wetland Management District. Photo by Alex Galt/USFWS.1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

A few days ago after a long day at work, I walked down to little Assawa Lake behind my house to say hello. My favorite month of June, nearly gone, replete with splendid greenery, warmth, and heavy with the scent of lush vegetation surrounding this serene and productive basin, provides an ambiance unlike at any other time of the year.

As I stood quietly before the lake enjoying the calm water, scenery, and birdlife, I became aware that the springtime cacophony of singing, territorial male red-winged blackbirds was absent already, yet other birds were present everywhere, including the redwings, which were busy feeding hungry mouths in nearby nests scattered throughout cattail beds.

The list of wild birds began to grow as my mind segued from the hustle and bustle of office life to the peace and joy of wildlife. There was a lone trumpeter feeding in the shallows; a solitary yodeling loon swimming on the open-water beyond the ring of watershield plants; male yellow warblers singing their telltale "sweet sweet sweet I'm so sweet" songs from surrounding upland vegetation; and ring-necked ducks diving under the surface of the water and popping back up as they foraged on who-knows-what.

Two other species of birds — birds that I once studied as a graduate student, and birds that I and other researchers lump together as "secretive species" of wetland associated birds — were also observed: the comical looking common snipe and the diminutive, chicken-like sora rail. Indeed, there's a special place in my heart for these two unique and interesting wild birds.

The snipe I saw were a male and a female, although admittedly I couldn't tell by plumage, but rather, by their behavior. In shorebird fashion, a single, vocalizing snipe flew its fluttering and delicate flight right before my eyes scarcely ten yards away. The bird was followed closely behind by another snipe, yet this one was emitting an altogether different call.

A moment later, one of the snipe departed from the dense grass and flew high into the sky and began its winnowing courtship flight-dance, thus giving away its gender, for only the male performs these aerial antics. The other snipe remained hidden in the grasses and sedges, thereby enabling me to deduce that this bird was female and very likely incubating four or so eggs in her concealed ground-nest.

While enjoying the winnowing male snipe high in the sky, I was alerted to the sound of a muffled splash coming from along the water's edge directly in front of me where the canary grass and sedge grow. A narrow path no wider than three feet through which I access the lake with the canoe provides a space just large enough to see where water meets land.

Appearing into the small open space of the shallow water was a tiny sora rail.

Soras are one of the tiniest species of rails in North America. Not even nine-inches long with a wingspan of not much more than a foot across, soras are rarely seen, but most often only heard. Known for their interesting whistled horse-like whinny and very shy behavior, sora rails spend their lifetimes wading gingerly across floating vegetation within the tangles of cattails, sedges, and grasses as they forage for seeds, insects, and snails throughout their wetland habitats.

My sora gave me a treat that allowed me a close up encounter that lasted almost a minute. Believe me, to observe a sora for a minute is a long time to watch this skittish and bashful little rail. I watched the bird search for and peck at various unidentified food items in the water and plant material. Much like a barnyard chicken, the sora did everything a hungry chicken would do except for scratching with its feet.

Truly, all about us are wild and wonderful birds and other lifeforms. Whether one observes the daily happenings of our backyard bird feeding stations, butterfly gardens, or delight in the folly of squirrels and chipmunks, there's something for everyone to see and hear as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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