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Observing a small part of nature’s ‘greatest show on earth’

Living the Wild Life

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Photos courtesy Bill Schiess |

A small chicken-like bird stood on a thick mat of watercress feeding on snails as I pulled up where the Little Lost River Road crossed Warm Spring Creek about seven miles north of Howe. Just as I was stopping, another Virginia Rail came out of the cattails and chased the feeder into the thick vegetation on the far side of the creek.

I pulled off the road to watch the area that three other birders, Kit Struthers, Carolyn Bishop and Teresa Meachum, had told me where they were during the Christmas bird count.

“We think there are five there,” explained Meachum as we were eating lunch. “One was west of the road and two pair were on the east. A pair was right by the culvert running under the road.”

“The one on the west did not come out, we only heard it as it was calling,” added Bishop. “We saw four of them downstream of the road.”

I know the spot well. Three years ago during a bird count, I had photographed two at that spot and this last summer I had driven past it 11 times while going rock hounding in the Pass Creek area. Several times I had stopped but had not seen any. This would be different.

After a five minute wait, one came sneaking out of the cattails and started picking up snails from the edge of the watercress as it worked up stream. When it got near me, another rail flew out of the brush just six feet away from me and chased it back where the first had emerged.

Landing on the opposite side of the stream, it hid just inside the vegetation, waiting for the other to get close again. A couple of minutes later, two emerged from cattails about 50 yards further downstream, making at least four different rails in the small area.

They appeared to be very territorial. Each time one would get close to certain spots in the creek, it would be chased off by an attacker. Sometimes they would attack by flight, but mostly by running at the trespasser. Often the chase would continue past the water vegetation and through the sagebrush on the bank.

At times they became very noisy as I heard at least four kinds of vocals, with clucking and cackling being the most common. When a pair would become separated with one on each side of the creek, they would softly call to each other.

Research shows that during the winter, Virginia Rails become solitary. These were not. At one time, I observed two pair feeding near each other while the pair near the culvert were serenading each other.

During the hour and a half that I observed them, I found their feeding to be very entertaining. It appeared that the most utilized food was the small snails and an occasional leach attached to the watercress. Occasionally, they would walk upstream with their head under the water to come up with multiple snails in their long bills. Other times they would submerge completely under the water coming up mostly dry in the bitter cold north wind.

As I left the three pair doing their chasing and cooing, I had questions that will demand another visit. In a matted green creek surrounded by snow covered rocks and hills, where do they spend the bitter cold nights? After they eat all the snails, does their body rattle during flight? Maybe they were chasing each other to stay warm.

I had enjoyed 90 minutes of watching just a small part of the greatest show on earth with close to 500 raptors nearby – nature at its finest.