Grays Harbor Birds — Virginia Rail

About a week ago, I stopped at the Oyehut State Park restrooms and while walking back to my car, I found a dead bird on the grass near the base of a wall. There were no visible signs of what had killed it; no blood, no missing pieces or parts, it was what we call “intact.” I put it in the trunk of my car to get someone to positively identify it, because I had never seen a Virginia Rail before, and I was pretty sure that is what this bird was.

A friend and fellow birder confirmed my I.D. and I wondered how it had come to be in Ocean Shores. I was unaware it was perfectly at home here, and not a rarity at all. The Virginia Rail is found in fresh water marshes…check. It is found in dense vegetation…check. It is also found in salt water marshes…check. Ocean Shores has all of those criteria. Lastly, it is a very secretive bird and hard to find. Aha! That would explain why I have never seen one before. I had to wait to find a dead one to know they were here.

Here are some of the pertinent facts about this elusive bird:

Size: 9.5 inches in length, wing span of 13 inches, and weight is 3 ounces.

General Description: A sturdy, medium-sized bird with a long, slightly decurved (curved downwards) reddish-orange bill, a short tail that curves upwards, a reddish body and legs, black and white striped flanks, and gray cheeks.If you were to just read that description, it is difficult to imagine how those colors can work on one bird; but they do, as the photo shows. The Virginia Rail has forehead feathers that have adapted to withstand wear from pushing through dense marsh vegetation and it can swim underwater to escape predators, propelling itself with its wings. As with other rail species, it has the highest ratio of leg muscles to flight muscles of any bird, and it has a flexible vertebrae.

Habitat: As mentioned earlier, these are fresh water marsh birds but are often found in brackish marshes, wherever insects are abundant in winter. They are usually associated with cattails and ditches.

Behavior: More often heard than seen, Virginia Rails are most active and visible at dawn and dusk. Their long bill probes mud and shallow water for prey. They are very vocal with a number of various calls to defend their territory and communicate between mates. The males courtship display is impressive with much bowing and running around the female with raised wings.

Diet: Virginia Rails feed on a variety of aquatic insects, among them flies and beetles, but they will also eat slugs, snails, earthworms, and even small fish. In the fall and winter, when food grows scarce, they also eat aquatic plants and seeds.

Nesting: Both sexes build a well-concealed, active nest and several dummy nests on the ground with a canopy of living plants. The nest is a loosely woven basket of marsh plants to which they add materials as eggs are being laid and incubated. The female lays anywhere from 5 to 13 eggs, and both sexes incubate them for 18 to 20 days. The eggs hatch asynchronously and the young can swim on their first day. They leave the nest 3 to 4 days after hatching, and can forage independently at 7 days of age. Both parents continue to defend the young after they leave the nest.

Migration Status: Most populations in the west are permanent residents, wintering west of the Cascades.

Conservation Status: The Virginia Rail is considered to be a game bird but is seldom hunted. Numbers are relatively stable, with some decline due to loss of habitat.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Breeding birds are found in lower-elevation fresh water marshes west to Ocean Shores. Look for them along the edges of ponds. lakes, and ditches, especially those filled with cattails.