The Shy and Secretive Sora

The Shy and Secretive Sora

May 18, 2018 ~ Soras are very tiny members of the Rallidae family; kin to the various Rails, Purple Gallinules, Moorhens and Coots. They are both common and abundant but shy and secretive, generally found in fresh water marshes and wetlands among the cattails and reeds. You hardly ever see them.

Except this year...

Remember how upset I was that I didn't get a good photo of the Sora we found deep in the canal bank at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year? That was in March and I whined about it in Traveling East

Then about a week later the water was low at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge and we were sitting on crates in the mud in one of the first few ponds on the Auto Tour. Off to my right I could see a Sora moving around behind some reeds. That bright yellow bill is unmistakable. I kept watching the movement and  then.... it came out into the open!

The shy and elusive Sora eating some awful green stuff.
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

It walked toward us (if you sit really still you are just another blob of vegetation) and eventually got closer than minimum focus distance. I was astounded at how small they are; Allaboutbirds says they are Robin-sized. 

Typical Sora pose with uplifted tail
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

Since then we have found them almost cooperative as they hunt for food in the shallows and mud. We are down in the muck, it is dirty and sloppy and you have to make danged sure there are no alligators or snakes. At Brazoria, the shallow ponds are drying up fast; and I think the alligators have moved to the deep canals. 

Sora with a snail
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/9.0 ISO 800; tripod

They peck around like chickens to find seeds and aquatic insects such as snails, dragonflies, flies, and beetles. This one was really close (hence f/9) and it is not a big crop. 

Walking through the muck
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

It was great finding them out in the open as getting detail on that black face in the dark marsh is difficult. 

Showing off that foot... 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; tripod

These were taken over several visits to Brazoria under differing light conditions.  Sometimes he moved through clear water puddles and other times we found them in the mud and sticks. Usually only one at a time. 

Bath time
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/9.0 ISO 640; tripod

And once we saw one bathing. It was a very short bath, just a couple of dunkings and a shake. No finishing jump in the air with flapping wings like Skimmers or so many others.

Close up
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

Sitting quietly in the mud we were almost ignored. The trick was to keep them from getting too close (minimum focus distance for me is just shy of 12 feet) as occasionally they passed in front of us at 4-5 feet. We just stared in amazement. 

According to the literature, the females are a bit lighter and I think I did see one last week, but couldn't get a clear shot. There was a pair off to the side and now and then I took a break from watching the Phalaropes in front to check on them. But the only time the lighter brown one came out was when the sun was too harsh. 

I think these guys will be leaving soon as Google tells me (Wildlife Distribution and Occurrence - Porzana carolina): 

From southern Kansas south to northern and eastern Texas and east through the inland areas of the southeastern United States, Soras are typically only observed during migration in the spring and fall.

Which must explain the "non-breeding" status on the map from Allaboutbirds. If you miss seeing them this Spring, perhaps you will have another chance in the Fall. 

The Texas Breeding Atlas confirms Soras are rare and uncommon breeders in Texas. They do lay 9-11 eggs and the pair share incubation duties. With such a huge clutch size, one parent might still be incubating eggs while the other teaches the new chicks to forage. Like most ground nesters, the chicks can run and swim a day after hatching. 

Have you ever seen a Sora? Did you see one for the first time this year? Do you wonder why we are seeing so many this Spring when they have been so shy and secretive in past seasons? Do you think we are seeing the results of Harvey's habitat destruction? Let me know in the comments below. 

Not all Nests are in Trees

Not all Nests are in Trees

Sorta-kinda Sunny Day at Anahuac

Sorta-kinda Sunny Day at Anahuac