This gallery contains 4 photos. After Environment Canada issued a milder-than-usual winter forecast for Metro Vancouver in the Fall of 2016, we were subjected to the Polar Vortex— a weather phenomenon that saw temperatures drop below zero (on one Friday night, to an almost a bone-chilling -10 C) for a week and a half. This unseasonably prolonged cold snap forced birds who didn’t normally venture out into the public eye to do so, in order to find food in non-frozen areas. One of these species was the Virginia Rail. At Brunswick Point in Ladner, British Columbia, we saw two of these small waterbirds (with absurdly long and spindly feet) on our first visit a few days before the onset of winter on December 17, 2016, and four of them on a subsequent visit two days later, foraging at the base of a tree not far from the walking trails. Temperatures hovered around a human toe- and finger-numbing -5 C; even through four layers of clothing, gloves, and toque, I could feel the biting cold nipping at my extremities. Incredibly, twelve Virginia Rails were reported by another birder on a single visit to the same area at high tide on December 21, 2016.
this Virginia Rail stepped into a square of sunshine (Brunswick Point, Dec 19, 2016)
f/7.1, 1/500, 500mm, ISO 640
Virginia Rails are notoriously secretive birds. They are more likely to be heard in the mudflats and rushes than to be seen. They are migratory, heading to the coastlines of the southern U.S. for the winter, but in Metro Vancouver, they may be heard (or, less often, seen) all year long. My only previous encounters were at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary earlier in the summer of 2016 when a hen was tending to her trio of newly hatched, striking coal black chicks, and this was a hopelessly distant sighting; and in the early fall of 2015, when a quartet was calling to each other (they have a distinctive “ticket, ticket, ticket” which brings to mind the catchphrase of train conductors), completely hidden from human gaze by the rushes. The only way I knew they were Virginia Rails was because a group of birders was also present, and one of them was kind enough to explain to me what I was hearing!
typical habitat with a Virginia Rail hen (Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, May 15, 2016)
f/8, 1/320, 500mm, ISO 640
two of three newly-hatched chicks of above hen (Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, May 15, 2016)
f/8, 1/320, 500mm, ISO 640
Having these rare closeup encounters allowed me to observe Virginia Rails more intimately: adults sport a bi-colored orange-and-black bill that’s longer than their head, bright orange legs, reddish eyes, short tail, and a light grey cheeks and face with a black “eyebrow”. Alternating vertical striations of black and white run from flank to rear, while the neck and breast are a faded orange. Wings and back are a combination of mottled black and faded orange. While they are more often seen on the ground, they have also been observed to fly, and even swim underwater to hide from predators. What amazed me about the Brunswick Point Virginia Rails was how unafraid they were around humans. They were so consumed (no pun intended) with the task of finding aquatic invertebrates to feed on that they simply ignored us. Occasionally, they would stop probing the dense underbrush and run back to the even denser thicket of rushes in the marsh, only to return, 10-15 seconds later, to the same area to forage. Learn more about the Virginia Rail by visiting their Cornell Lab of Ornithology allaboutbirds.org profile here.
profile (and closer) shot of second Virginia Rail at Brunswick Point on Dec 19
f/7.1, 1/400, 500mm, ISO 1000