July 8, 2016
Prompted by some alerts from Ron Shearer and others about a family of Soras at the Nazarene Church Road wetlands (in Rockingham County) which I had read on the shenvalbirds e-mail list, I drove up to that location today, and boy was my patience sorely tested! I arrived before 10:00 A.M., and carefully checked out various likely spots, to no avail. A man was mowing his lawn with a self-propelled mower, and the noise was probably frightening the birds. Finally, he was done and it got quiet. At one point, a lady bus driver stopped, and I was afraid she was going to ask what the heck I was doing, but instead she asked "Did you see it?" Yes, she was one of the local people who had seen the Sora, and I was glad to know that I was looking in the right place. I saw a few Wood Ducks (female and juveniles), as well as a Green Heron and Kingfisher, so I took some photos. By 11:00, it was getting hot, and I had mixed feelings when dark clouds approached and light rain began to fall. The cool wind was a relief, but I feared that bad weather would cause my efforts to be wasted. I told myself, just a little more time...
And just when I was beginning to lose hope, the sun came back out and all of a sudden I saw two of the Sora fledglings, dark charcoal black in color. Finally! Of course, I started taking photos, but it was hard because they kept hiding in the marshes. I noticed that one of the juveniles had more brownish plumage than the other two, perhaps because it's a few days older. After a while, I caught a glimpse of the adult (presumably the mother), and was struck by the short, upturned tail, reminding me of a Winter Wren. No photos, though. A few times later on I heard the distinctive "whinnying" call of the Sora, so I knew it was close even if it was concealed. I took a break in my car, and when I came back, I had another clear view, and this time I was amazed by the bright yellow beak. I finally got some good photos of the adult, along with more photos of the juveniles. BINGO! I ended up with sunburns on the arms and neck, but it was worth it!
Soras are marsh-dwelling birds related to Rails, one of which I photographed in February. (See note at bottom.) In the eastern United States, Soras breed almost exclusively north of the Mason-Dixon line. Parts of the southwest U.S.A. are within their breeding range as well. According to Birds of Augusta County (2008), there is only one nesting record of Soras in this county, in 1973, and that nest was abandoned before the eggs hatched. I'll have to check to make sure this successful breeding has been duly recorded in the VABBA-2 system.
I first saw a Sora on July 28, 2012 near Utica, SD, during a birding expedition with my brother John and my (late) father, Alan Clem. (See my Life bird list.) It was in a muddy ditch along a highway, with many other birds, and I only had a brief view.
After I got satisfactory photos of the Soras, I headed northwest a few more miles toward Briery Branch, and ascended the mountains in the direction of Reddish Knob. I never made it to the summit parking lot, but I did accomplish my main goal, which was to see whether the Ruffed Grouse that we spotted during an Augusta Bird Club field trip on May 20 was still there. Sure enough, I spotted one almost as soon as I passed the intersection of Routes 257 and FS 85 at the gap summit. It was probably the same bird that we saw before, i.e. probably the mother, but this time there were no young ones with it / her. (That's where we saw the Red Crossbills on that trip, but they weren't there today.) Anyway, the Ruffed Grouse was just standing in the middle of the "road" (actually a rutted track), and stayed close enough to the side as I slowly passed by for me to get an excellent closeup "portrait"!
I also saw a [singing male] Yellow-rumped Warbler (see montage below) and Chipping Sparrow in that area, but nothing else. [The only other songs I heard up there were those of Juncos, Towhees, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler.] It's a sign that songbird breeding activity is quickly winding down for the season.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) publishes a magazine called Virginia Wildlife, and every year they run a nature photography contest. Well, I decided to enter it this year for the first time, and lo and behold, when the July/August issue came in the mail last week, there was my photo of a Virginia Rail on page six, coming in third behind two others in the "Virginia Fauna" section. I was hoping just to get included, and I was astounded that it ranked so highly. So, I figured an "encore" presentation of that photo would be appropriate.