The Secretive Sora

Two days ago, on a summer-like evening, my wife and I visited the Forum Nature Area in Columbia. As expected, that wetland preserve was alive with the sights and sounds of the season, including a background din of cricket frogs, colorful summer songbirds and attentive Canada geese with their downy broods. But the highlight of our visit was witnessed for only a few seconds.

Approaching a marsh-lined pond, we accidentally flushed a sora; fluttering into the air, the small rail soon dropped into another patch of cattails and remained out of sight. Though a widespread summer resident in North America, breeding across southern Canada and the northern half of the U.S., from New England to the Great Basin, soras favor dense, freshwater marshlands, where they are fairly common but rarely encountered. Like other rails, they prefer to escape into the reeds when disturbed and are reluctant to take flight. Their descending whinny or sharp, two-note call usually announces their presence and they are best observed on backwater mudflats at dawn or dusk.

Despite their weak flight when flushed from cover, soras migrate to the Coastal Plain, Central America and Southern California for the winter and have been observed crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Having never encountered one at Forum in the past, I'm not sure if this week's sighting was of a lone migrant or whether these shy and elusive rails breed at the marsh. I'll just have to be more alert on future visits.