Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) are secretive birds, often heard but seldom seen. Their habitat is tall stands of reeds and cattails with standing water. Leonard and I could hear their distinctive calls, but would only catch glimpses of these elusive birds as they quickly scuttled back into the deep vegetation. After many hours skulking about in the marshy areas of Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA) and standing immobile at the edges of their habitat, we finally managed to photograph Virginia rails as they probed in the mud and shallow water foraging for aquatic insects and their larvae, snails, crayfish, earthworms, small fish, slugs and some seeds.
Both sexes look alike. Adults have a rusty chest and belly, dark streaking down the back, a brownish crown and nape and grey cheek. The Virginia rail’s throat is white, the flanks are black barred with white and the undertail, which flicks as they walk, has white feathers. The eye is reddish brown, the long, slender slightly decurved bill is reddish, as are the long legs.
Virginia rails are well adapted to their semi-aquatic existence in dense, practically impenetrable vegetation. They have long toes, flexible vertebrae, a laterally compressed body and forehead feathers that resist damage from the sharp vegetation. Rails, as a group, have the highest ratio of leg muscles to flight muscles making them suited to walking in mud. Except during migration Virginia rails fly very little. Although they can swim, Virginia rails usually refrain from doing so.
Virginia rails summer over much of North America and most winter in the southern United States and northern Mexico. Some populations in the West are permanent.
In some states Virginia rails are considered game birds. Loss of wetland habitat and development can also threaten their numbers. However, at this time Virginia rail populations do not appear to be declining.
Tomorrow I will introduce my readers to juvenile Virginia rails.