Spotting rails in Tennessee is a toss

A cluster of Blount County ponds bordered by cattails proves the value to birds of even small parcels of wetlands.

On Feb. 26 the manmade marshy ponds hosted three rare in winter species: a sora rail, a common gallinule (also a rail species), and two marsh wrens. Also present were nine coots (another rail species) 27 gadwalls, 36 green winged teal, and an orange crowned warbler catching flying insects. A sora was present all winter.

Rails are secretive birds except for the coots. <a href=»» target=»_blank»>Canada Goose sale</a> They live in dense aquatic vegetation such as cattails, reeds, and sedges at the edges of ponds, wet meadows, marshes, and swamps. In Tennessee, the sora is the most common small rail. The black rail is the rarest.

The sora is a small brown and gray, short billed, chicken like bird that nests in wetlands north of Tennessee. Soras migrate at night. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to wintering grounds in South America. You may find this hard to believe if you ever seen a sora in flight. Flush one and it lumbers off the ground and flutters along just barely above the tops of the plants.

With its long spindly legs dangling down it looks so awkward and feeble you think it going to fall out of the air. But soras are strong flyers. And they can swim, dive, and walk under water.

The meaning of the word sora is unknown. It may have been a Native American Indian word. Early settlers were most interested in soras as a source of meat. Soras are supposedly quite tasty if properly cooked. They were easy to kill.

Hunters went by poling small boats through shallow coastal marshes at high tide to shoot rails or club them with oars. Skilled hunters killed 90 or 100 rails per outing as a rising tide forced rails to climb up plant stalks and leaves where they were more visible and exposed. During spring migration, dead soras were sold at New Orleans and Charleston markets.

Early settlers had a very strange belief about soras. When all the soras suddenly disappeared every autumn, people believed the soras buried themselves in the mud for the winter. The truth is soras often vanish overnight because they all may leave together on migration if cold weather arrives.

Soras are most likely to be seen and heard in Tennessee during spring and fall migration. The ideal way to see a rail is to learn to recognize a few rail calls. Learn the sora and Virginia rail calls first. Soras make a descending musical whinny and a frog like whistle. If you hear a rail calling try to pinpoint the source of the sound, watch closely, and hope the rail walks out of the vegetation and into the open so you can see it.

Another way to see a rail is to walk through a wetland area and hope you flush a rail. If several people space themselves apart and walk in a line, your chances of flushing a rail or marsh wren increase.

Try imitating a rail call a few times. You might get an answer. Tap some coins or small rocks together. Make some clicking noises. If all else fails, throw a few rocks but not directly at a rail. Clicking sounds, splashes, and thuds may stimulate rails to start calling. And if there nothing to click or throw? I seen birders desperate to see rare rails toss a tennis shoe or boot into an oozy marsh. If you decide to toss something unnatural, retrieve it. Don leave it. And good luck finding it.