Soras (Porzana carolina) are the most common and widespread rails in North America. That said, soras are rarely seen. They are very secretive and infrequently emerge from the thick masses of cattails, rushes and sedges they inhabit. When soras do appear at the edge of the reeds they do not remain exposed long and the slightest movement sends them back into hiding.
Leonard and I spent several years returning to sites where we know soras live. Their distinctive, descending whinny from the depths of cattails in Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA) lets us know their location. But even sitting for hours at the vegetation/water/mud interface only produced brief glimpses as one would pop out of the cattails and immediately disappear again. Once a chick covered in black down even ran across the trail in front of us. But before I would even think of lifting my camera, they were always gone.
Finally last month a sora remained visible long enough to get a couple photographs – maybe 15 seconds. They are not the best pictures, but at last I did get a sora picture.
Sora are chunky, chicken-like birds with mottled grey and brown plumage. They have a grey face with black mask and a short tail with white underneath. As they walk, soras flick their tails exposing the white underside. A feature that distinguishes them from other rails is their thick, stubby yellow bill, often described as looking like a piece of candy corn. Long toes help them walk on the top of floating masses of vegetation. Females resemble males but are duller while juveniles are pale below and brown above with a buffy face.
Soras eat mostly seeds from wetland plants and also take aquatic invertebrates.
Long distance migrants, soras migrate at night. They summer across Canada, northern United States and Rocky Mountain States down to Arizona and New Mexico. Winter finds soras in Mexico, Central and South America and the southern States. In the winter and during migration soras often move from dense vegetation in freshwater to brackish marshes with thick emergent plants.
Although 31 states, mostly in the East, permit hunting of soras, their numbers appear to remain stable. Loss of habitat, not hunting, seems to be a more immediate threat to these elusive birds.
Someday I will get better sora pictures, but for now I am content with having ANY sora picture.