Secretive by nature and more often heard than seen, the Virginia Rail is a small waterbird with a current status of “least concern” as populations are rising (although habitat is diminishing, so this is one to watch). In some states these are considered a game bird, although it’s small size and skittish nature make it of little interest to many hunters.
Virginia rails have a reddish bill, cinnamon neck and barred black and white on the tail. A chicken-like bird, they are sized somewhere between a robin and a crow. They are a difficult (for me) to photograph marsh dweller. When seen, they walk with jerky movements, hurriedly in the open, slower and more deliberate in the reeds and stalks of cattails. The brackish waters of Nisqually provide the perfect habitat. Rails in Washington are known to winter on the west side of the Cascades. Rails are in the same family as coots (who knew?) and they sport a laterally compressed body (looking skinny, straight on), long toes and a flexible vertabrae.
While they are most active at dawn and dusk, they are most vocal in spring. They make a loud grunting sound. A males “song” is a series of doubled “kiddik, kiddik” notes with the most common call a descending, accelerating series of those signature “grunts”. As a group, rails have a higher ratio of leg muscles to flight muscles, so you’ll often see them walking through soft mud rather than flying. Like the Bewicks wren ( you can read about them here ), they often build “dummy nests” to distract from their real one. Their forehead feathers are made to withstand pushing headfirst through thick, sharp marshes. Insects, crayfish, snails and some seeds make up most of their diet.
In courtship, the male runs back and forth in front of the female, wings raised, showing off the underside of white tail feathers. Big show-offs !
Fun fact: Virginia rails will run rather than fly to escape predators.
The Virginia rail is monogomous and the pair bond breaks only after the young have become independent, usually around their 25th day. Both parents feed the young, and while it is largely up to the male to defend the nest, both will vigorously defend it if threatened.
Another fun fact: a group of rails is commonly referred to as a “reel of rails”.
My personal experience has been that a sighting of this elusive bird is rare and quite serendipitous. My first photo was at Juanita Bay Park and was captured completely by accident. They are as fast and as secretive as they have been described. My second only sighting was with a much better view and much clearer shot. It’s true, you definitely hear them more often than you’ll see them. They are stunning birds and now I listen quite eagerly for them along the boardwalk in hopes of another chance encounter.