Thursday, November 29, 2012

Inconspicuous Birds: Rail, Sora, and Snipe

I started actively birding late in the summer of 2009 after picking up a field guide at Barnes & Noble while on a date with my wife. It was sort of a spontaneous purchase because I saw the guide and remembered my interest in birds as a young boy growing up in Kentucky. My daughter saw my book and decided to buy me some cheap binoculars for my birthday in September. I googled "bird watching in Utah", found the Utah County Birdwatchers Club and the awesome site of I attended a club meeting and signed up for not one but two Audubon Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), one in Provo and one in Payson. I was doing a deep dive into a new hobby.

For my first CBC I had the great fortune of being hooked up with a seasoned birder who had moved to Utah after retiring from a long teaching career in Ohio. Fortunately, he had the skills I lacked when it came to identifying birds. To my credit I had boundless enthusiasm. I remember him counting birds from the warmth of his vehicle while I was bounding through fields of snow in freezing temperatures to find something to add to our list. At one point I was standing in the cold under some trees that stood next to a small wetland surrounded by cat tails which had collapsed as a result of previous snowfalls. The water was essentially frozen over except for one small spot where the water was being pumped, probably for farming purposes. As I focused on that one spot I caught a glimpse of something moving beneath the bent over reeds, just a couple feet from where I was standing. All I could see through the thick reeds was the back of what seemed to be a furry mammal. I could see its brown and black body bending and expanding, changing size and shape as it moved beneath the reeds.  I called to my CBC partner. He came over and I pointed and asked, "What is that? It looks like some sort of furry brown animal." A moment later the creature revealed more than just its undulating torso and my partner exclaimed, "That's a Virginia Rail! You'll go out 90 times before you see one of those!" I felt like I had just discovered the coolest thing in the world. I had done something miraculous for the Provo Christmas Bird Count by contributing such a rare beauty!

Since that unique discovery and experience I have attempted to recognize the appropriate habitat for inconspicuous birds such as Virginia Rails, Soras, and Wilson's Snipes. These are birds heard more often  than seen, except for Snipes if you know where to spot them. I've been fortunate and very pleased to have seen and photographed all three of these stealthy little bird species in the very location of my first Virginia Rail discovery on that cold December day outside the small town of Vineyard, Utah.

Below are some of my favorite images of all three species. I encourage you to become part of a Christmas Bird Count this winter.

Virginia Rail at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, Davis County, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Virginia Rail at Garr Ranch, Antelope Island State Park, Davis County, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Virginia Rail in Vineyard, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Virginia Rail at Sunset in Vineyard, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Sora Dashing Across Frozen Water at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, Davis County, UT
(Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Sora in Winter, Vineyard, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Sora in Winter, Vineyard, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Wilson's Snipe in Vineyard, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)


  1. GREAT shots Jeff!
    You sniped the heck outta those Snipe. This seems like a really good spot, and the CBCs provide a great opportunity to sit in one area and really get great looks at these sorts of secret birds.

    Right on!

  2. Thanks, Laurence. It is interesting how you can remember all the details of the moment when you discovered and photographed each bird, no matter how long ago it occurred. I was parked in my truck with my lens propped on a beanbag over my door and waiting patiently as the Snipe in the last image made its way in my direction.

    1. Ah, patience and the good ol' mobile blind. I wish I could photograph from the car more often. Birds seem to find my gangly frame much more intimidating than a parked car. Go figure.