Do we have Crakes in North America? That depends on whose definition you follow, but I like this one from Merriam-Webster: “any of various rails, especially a short-billed rail.”
At least four species from the Rail family, including three short-billed ones, have made appearances within a kilometer of my home this year – so at least we can say that the Crake cousins are well represented here.
The first one to show up this year was the American Coot, in early spring. I only saw one individual, and it only stuck around for a few days. Likewise, the Common Gallinule and the Sora have also put in appearances here.
The Coot spends somewhat more time swimming than do most Rails, but when it gets out of the water you can see one of the distinctive adaptations shared by Rails. Their feet, which can spread across floating mats of roots and reeds in soupy mud, make it possible to stride through swamps where you and I would sink to our waists.
The Rails usually hang out in the marsh interior, and they’re not easy to find. But while you prowl the marsh’s edge looking for a good vantage you can spot all sorts of wonders. A multitude of snails, for example (which just happen to be one of the favoured foods of Rails).
Milkweed grows beside the marsh in great profusion, and the blooms attract the Virginia Ctenucha Moth.
I’m convinced the spelling of Ctenucha was devised merely to confuse people. (The first letter is silent.) But apparently “ctenucha” means “having a comb”.
In the lush meadow at water’s edge there are several storeys of growth. Near ground level I pondered this botanical apparition.
With a clear view of the marsh interior, on the right day, with the right light, you just might get a glimpse of some Rails – in this case, the Virginia Rails. The chicks appeared to be just a few days old and, camouflaged in coal-black fuzz, they remained all-but-invisible unless they ventured out of the shadows. (See if you can spot the one in the background below).
The Virginia Rail chicks already sported feet nearly as long as their tiny bodies.
Nine days later I got a look at two more chicks, now foraging on their own, and beginning to show the Virginia Rail patterning.
While the Rails spend their summer walking among the reeds, seldom swimming or flying, most other marsh birds have different ways of life. Wood Ducks (below) swim throughout the marsh though they nest in trees close to water.
Flycatchers are fond of the thickets at marsh edge. The different species are notoriously hard to distinguish except by their songs, and I didn’t hear this one sing before it flitted out of sight. Perhaps, some day, I might make its acquaintance once more.
Photo at top of page: Learning the way (click here for larger view)