Near Brainerd, Minn. – One can spend a lifetime outdoors and never see a sora.
A what? you ask.
A sora. It’s a fist-sized game bird that lives a reclusive existence in marshes and wetlands across the United States. Yes, Minnesota, too. In fact, soras are the most common and widely distributed member of the rail family in North America.
Well, that doesn’t help much, you add.
OK, toss a fist-sized rock into a Minnesota marsh or slough and at the splash you might hear a resounding “peep” from the little birds. Or, if you sit quietly near a cattail marsh or wild rice bog you might hear a sora sing, especially in spring. The sound is a rapidly descending whinny. Maybe you’ve heard it before but could not identify the source.
Last week on a cool but sunny morning, I entered a blind I had placed weeks earlier along the shore of a small marsh. My plan was to photograph wetland birds, ducks mostly, but any bird species that happened along. Maybe a heron, a red-winged blackbird, a kingfisher …
I knew soras lived among the cattails and wild rice that grew in the pond because I had heard them calling now and then. Still, I had slim hope of seeing one of the odd little birds.
I peered out of a portal after settling in the blind. To my left was a thick stand of cattails, so dense that I could only see a few feet into the vegetation. Looking right I noted the plant life was more open. Sedge grasses and horsetail grew nearby, and cattails filled in down the shoreline.
The still morning air was punctuated by the singing of springtime birds. Song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and mourning doves welcomed the day. A ruffed grouse drummed in the distance.
Then, to my left, I heard the distinct high pitch of a sora. The sound emanated from the heavy cattails. I guessed the bird was about 30 yards away. Would the mysterious sora show itself in front of my blind?
I was perched on the edge of my camp stool, senses alert. I double-checked the camera settings and lens to be sure everything was in proper order should the sora appear.
Perhaps 15 minutes passed. I began to relax. I glanced out of my blind at the sound of rushing wings, and watched as a pair hooded mergansers lighted on the marsh. For now they were out photography range.
Then I saw tiny ripples in the water just on the edge of thick cattails. What was causing those ripples? I readied my camera and waited.
A sora appeared a few seconds later. I watched as it stalked silently among the cattail stems, carried along by long, lime-green legs that ended with sprawling toes. Its stout tail was pointed skyward. The bird occasionally probed the shallow marsh with its short yellow bill.Soras are normally wary, but this bird, at least momentarily, seemed unconcerned as it moved toward an opening in the cattails.
I was ready. When the sora got there, I depressed the shutter button. My camera whirred as I took image after image.
Just as the sora was about to enter more heavy cover, it reversed its course and walked past me again, offering me a rare second chance.
There is an old saying among wildlife photographers that states “f8 and be there.” Basically, it means you won’t take outstanding images sitting at home.
When I viewed the images of the sora on the back of my camera another proverb came to mind.
Luck favors those who are prepared.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.