The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Sora in a Very Strange Location
by Ro Wauer

Finding a sora, a small water bird, in my backyard on a recent morning was a complete surprise. Actually it was a dead sora, probably killed by a raptor, and I may have frightened the predator away when I went out the back door. A red-shouldered hawk, that had been perched in an adjacent tree, flew away, screaming at me for sudden appearance. The dead sora was lying in the grass right next to our dragonfly pond. It probably had arrived during the nighttime and had just been killed by the hawk. On close inspection, I discovered that the sora was a juvenile bird, undoubtedly an early migrant that had become disoriented.

Soras are about robin-size, but with very different features. Adults are dark brown above with white streaks, with a ruddy cap and black face and throat, yellow bill, and grayish underparts with white belly bands. Juveniles lack the yellow bill and black face, and the throat is ruddy. Soras possess long greenish legs with long toes that allow them to walk on muddy surfaces. Their preferred habitats include both freshwater and saltwater marshes, and during migration they are often found in rice fields and other flooded agricultural sites. Their diet consists of a wide variety of aquatic insects, snails, and seeds.

As a member of the rail family, soras typically are shy creatures, staying within on nearby thick vegetation such as cattails. They occasionally venture out into open water where; they can swim and dive very well. Even youngsters right out of the nest can swim and dive. But birders seldom are able to get a really good look at soras because of their shy character. Yet, they are quite vocal, and a loud clap or “eek” sound often will solicit a response. They possess sharp, high-pitched “keek” or whistled “ker-wheer” calls. They also may give a descending whinny call, especially on their breeding grounds.

In Texas, soras occur primarily in migration and during the winter months. Nesting has been recorded within the coastal prairies, but that is a very rare occurrence. But from mid-August to mid-May they can be reasonably common at wetlands throughout the state. In fact, according to “Handbook of Texas Birds,” by Mark Lockwood and Brush Freeman, “there was an extraordinary count of up to 622 individuals from rice fields on the central coast on 14 October 1998.”

Birding the rice fields and similar open wetlands can produce a wide diversity of birds, from shorebirds to waders, ducks and rails. The rails usually are the least obvious of the birds because of their secretive behavior. But a careful observer could possible find three other rail species: clapper, king, and Virginia. Clapper rails prefer saltwater wetlands while king and Virginia rails prefer freshwater sites. Two additional rails occur in Texas. Black rails are resident along the upper and central coast, frequenting marine wetland areas such as that present along Magic Ridge near Indianola. Yellow rails occur only as a migrant and winter resident; most birders find their lifer within the upper coastal prairies such as at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Rails belong to the Raillidae Family that also includes coots, moorhens, and gallinules, all birds usually associated with wetlands. They all possess short tails and short rounded wings, although all can fly very well and many migrate great distances. The tiny yellow rail, for example, over winters along the Gulf Coast but nests far to the north in the upper Great Lakes region and in Canada. Soras spend their winter months along the Gulf Coast, southern California and Arizona, and in Mexico, but nests all across the central United States and northwest almost to Alaska.

Who knows where the young sora found in my yard was fledged, but it was most welcome. It was my yard bird number 180.

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