Virginia Rail

virginia rail

A Virginia rail “admiring” its reflection in Sand Creek's pond 4.

There are two birds that are fairly common in the West yet notoriously hard to see. They are the sora and the Virginia rail, and they are called secretive marsh birds for a reason. That is why it seemed so crazy to be watching both of them at the same time at Montezuma Well, part of Montezuma Castle National Monument in central Arizona. Montezuma Well is a deep limestone sink, a large pond, in the middle of a desert, lined with cattails and willows and adorned with 1500-year-old cliff dwellings. We had a great view of these two unconcerned birds that entertained us for about 15 minutes.

I have only seen both of these birds more or less together in one place one other time, and that was when I spent hours in a blind at Sand Creek WMA, my feet submerged in the cold waters of Pond 4. Even then, the species didn’t come out together, but rather one at a time.

Virginia rails are relatively handsome birds with longish orange-black bills, reddish brown bodies, and gray cheeks. They have long legs and short tails and black and white barring on the flanks. They normally carry their heads near their bodies, but can stretch their necks, bittern-like, a surprising distance. Males and females are similar.

Besides the West, Virginia rails are found during summer months across the Dakotas, Great Lakes states and New England. Oddly, even though they are named Virginia, they only occupy the coastal regions of that state, where they are year-round residents.

As members of the Rallidae or rail family, Virginia rails have lots of close and distant cousins. This family includes the rails such as the clapper, yellow and king, the sora, coots and gallinules. They are found worldwide, including on many islands, but they do not like excessive cold weather. This family has members from as small as 20 ounces to over six pounds. However, as a family they also have the highest ratio of leg to flight muscles of any birds, explaining the predisposition of this group to walk rather than fly.

Most Rallidae members can fly, and many make annual migrations, even though they are weak fliers. They are frequently blown off course and show up in strange places. This also explains how they ended up on so many islands.

Virginia rails are birds of the marshes. They love the thickest cover that they can find, usually cattails or bulrushes. This makes them difficult to see. However, they do make a fair amount of noise, especially during breeding season when their grunting call may be heard. If you hear it, stick around and keep an eye on the edges of the cattails. You may just catch a glimpse of one on the prowl.

Despite the fact that Virginia rails live in some of the densest cover imaginable, they still go to great lengths to protect their nests. They will construct a number of dummy nests to fool predators and keep their eggs safe.

Virginia rail chicks are, for rails, handsome little guys. They are covered in jet black down that may have a greenish iridescence in the right light.

Because Virginia rails are so secretive, seeing one, in spite of the fact that they are common, is a thrill. I look forward to my next encounter with one.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho