Thursday, December 31, 2009

6 Marsh Birds

I spent about 3 hours birding Lake Creek Trail this morning, mostly near the Parmer Lane bridge. Just upstream of this bridge Lake Creek forms the only substantial patch of marsh habitat in our neighborhood boundaries. I would estimate there's about half an acre of cattails and other marsh plants there, which is enough to attract several marsh-dwelling species of birds. This morning I found 6 of those species, all winter residents. As I approached the creek I first found a male Common Yellowthroat foraging in the tall grass. These colorful members of the warbler family are often found in marsh habitat, but they like any low dense brush near water.

When I got to the edge of the cattails I was able to find 2 Swamp Sparrows, a species of native sparrow that breeds and winters in marshy wetlands habitat. I have been observing this species pretty reliably here for the past few winters. (So far this has been a good winter for these and other sparrow species. I found 6 more species of native sparrows this morning, mostly Song Sparrows.)

Next, using a new portable speaker I just got for my iPhone, I played a recording of a Marsh Wren from the edge of the reeds. I was delighted to have one emerge and come close to investigate. I have seen Marsh Wrens in this spot before, but not for 2 winters. (I don't know if they've been here every winter and I've just not observed them, or if they have actually been absent.) I got this photo of the one I saw today.

I was surprised when the Marsh Wren recording also attracted a very active Sedge Wren, which approached me even closer than the Marsh Wren. The Marsh Wren chased it off several times, but I was able to get this picture of it.

While the Marsh Wren recording was playing I heard the very distinctive call of a Sora from somewhere in the reeds. The Sora is our most common member of the Rail family. Like many other rails, it's a medium sized bird that walks more than it flies and spends most of its time in dense marsh grass and reeds. It has a narrow body with large feet, enabling it to walk and run and forage in this habitat. When it's in danger, it will usually run or walk deeper into the reeds rather than fly away. So rails like the Sora can be very hard to actually see.

I decided to start playing a recording of a Sora to hopefully lure it out. I heard the Sora respond once to the recording so I started watching the reeds very carefully. Soon I saw something about the right size moving around, and I finally got my binoculars on it. To my great surprise the bird that emerged from the reeds was not a Sora, but a Virginia Rail! These are less common than Sora and even harder to see. I have only ever seen one twice before, both times on the Texas coast. I was very pleased to get this mediocre photo of it.

Virginia Rail is now #198 on my list of species I've seen in the neighborhood since I moved here in 2004. And our little bit of marsh could potentially add a few more to my list. Marsh and wetlands are extremely valuable habitat types to the birds I saw this morning and to other wildlife. I directly saw this value today when I found so many marsh-specific birds spending their winter in this tiny little patch. I feel fortunate that we have this little patch of marsh on our trail, and I hope we can keep it.

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