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Canoeing with Sora Rails (Part II)

Trees grew up along the northeast bank, walling in the marsh – adding to our sense of solitude and peace. Wild rice grew thickly all around the lily patch, the only passage through was to the northwest. In many places, the coontail lying on its side poked above the water’s surface, creating a spiny texture. At some point, Larry exchanged the paddle for a really long pole, standing up in the canoe – poling us along. He explained, “This is how you go wild ricing.”He moved the pole from one side to the other going over and above the canoe (and my head) with it. We paused near the northwest edge of the lily patch where a few more wild rice plants grew, observing the marsh.

I spotted a bird to my right, “Is that a rail?”

Larry had been looking through the wild rice to a gray spot in the vegetation ahead, and replied, “No that’s a heron.” I pointed to my right, “But is that a rail?”

He said, “Yeah, that is a rail.”I was elated. Finally, I had a chance to see a sora rail, more than just a fleeting glimpse. Bigger than a robin, more roundish (less upright; compressed laterally). Though mostly brown it was a beautiful bird – speckled with black and white that set off the brown in a lovely contrast. The rows of tadpole shaped black spots streaming down its wings and back aid in camouflaging the rail. Between the black lines were lines of tiny white dots and streaks, an artist’s final touch to add contrast and dimension. Dark brown back and wing feathers fade into very light brown with white specks on its breast. Its side and belly were a mosaic of dark brown irregular splotches with white and black edgings. The bird’s chest and cheeks were a soft gray. Its chin looked to be black. It had a black diamond around its tarnished yellow beak, the black eye at the point of the diamond. A white streak crossed its brow and a dark brown cap with black spots covered the top of its head. Tail was erect almost like a fan but not spread out (like a quails), and looked to be dark brown with black edging; the underside of the tail a flashy white, like a white tail deer. The coloration and patterns of the rail’s feathers make the bird difficult to spot among the marsh vegetation at the water’s surface. I was thrilled this one wasn’t spooked by us so I could take a picture; another beautiful gift from God. The rail seemed too busy collecting food to pay us much mind.

Grateful and satisfied with finally seeing a rail, I turned my attention to the gray spot in the wild rice some distance ahead of us peering through the few wild rice plants directly before us. It was indeed a great blue heron sitting in the water with its grayish blue back to us. It was busy preening its feathers – with its wings wrapped around it, it looked very round. Its white head and neck seemed to glow in the morning light. Its back and wing feathers appeared stringy. Neck bent and head down, turned backward grooming its wings. We sat silently watching it, enthralled. I enjoy watching great blue herons – they’re so majestic. My heart lifts when I see them. Slowly, Larry began to creep the canoe forward. As we began going through the wild rice plants, a thin, almost invisible spider web that we broke through clung to me – always a strange feeling. I marveled that there could be spiders even out on the water. We inched along, our eyes glued to the blue heron. And then the heron noticed us and immediately took flight, appearing quite gangly with its long neck and legs, a spray of water falling off its feet. Larry remarked, “It must not have seen us coming at all that we scared it off.” I was a bit bummed it flew away, but I loved watching it in flight – such an impressive wing span. I watched it until it disappeared into the trees. Another wood duck was startled by us too, flying away. The wild rice ahead of us now seemed lonely and empty without the great blue heron.

Looking ahead to the northwest, Larry said, “It doesn’t look like there is much more water ahead of us.” So we sat there, again taking in the marsh.

“Rail to your right. Right.” I had trouble spotting it at first, and then there it was sitting among the lily pads – I took it in for a few moments before looking elsewhere. There’s just so much to see and experience, and take in. I was studying the vegetation to my left. There was another sora rail, hopping around, going about its day, finding breakfast. I enjoyed the opportunity and front row seating to watch this lovely bird. It appeared to be catching breakfast, most likely selecting from the mass of insects on the water’s surface. It would dip its beak down and pick something up than lift its head up, presumably eating, then dip its head back down again, turning around, constantly moving. Parts of the bird would sometimes be hidden by the vegetation as it danced about eating breakfast. I was mesmerized by its dance. It may have been eating seeds too. I observed it grab something with its beak. With the sun lighting the bird, I could see its eyes were chocolate brown and not black. I think Larry was watching the rail too.

There’s another one, ahead of you,” Larry said. I had a harder time seeing that one because of the wild rice plants between us. Larry suggested, “Stand up; you could probably get a better look at it.” Very slowly, being sure to balance myself, I stood up and took a look. I could indeed see it better – so beautiful, with its reflection mirrored in the water. Do they ever notice their reflection? Though the silence, or rather the peace almost felt palpable – a cooing, almost like a high pitched meowing kitten, sound filled the marsh around us. “Is that the rails making that noise?” I asked Larry.

“Yeah, it’s them,” he replied. I had sat back down at that point. The rail ahead of me was too hard to see so my attention returned to the rail on my left – bathed in the morning sunlight, it looked splendid. It too was reflected in the water. Still hopping about, turning this way and that way, studying the water. It actually looked like it was looking at its reflection. I looked back at the one ahead of me but it was even harder to see. Then my attention wandered to the wild rice plants ahead and towering to my right, just a handful of them. I took in their beauty noticing there were a few grains of rice left in the plant. I also noticed a thin strand of a spider’s web only visible when you look just so at it, shimmering in the sun, stretched between wild rice plants. My attention was again pulled back to the rail on my left. Its one foot stuck up out of the water – I couldn’t tell if it was resting on a curled up lily pad or only just looked that way. It had a large foot. I was so fascinated by this bird. It had turned around again. Its wings slightly raised as it dipped its beak down to the water’s surface. In a split second its wings were folded tightly against its back again, head up. Its long toes looked to be gripping the stalk of a bent wild rice plant. Head down and turned inward, now, as it preens the feathers along its side. Almost like getting an itch. Then its head is up, turned almost backwards, reaching its back to preen its back feathers too. Next its head is down, preening its chest feathers; ruffled neck feathers make it appear fuzzy. It pauses the grooming session, looks around. Then head back down, bent side ways to get the spot right under its wing again. (This all happened in just a minute but it seemed much longer, in a good way, as I was totally captivated by it.) Something must have caught the bird’s attention for it stopped preening suddenly. Head lifted high, looking behind it fully alert. It wasn’t too alarmed though, for it faced the other way again in a second.

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