Oh, wait. Maybe it’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” that is the famous movie. You know the one; about the attack on Pearl Harbor, produced with the 1970 timeframe storytelling.
Let me try again: Ask a Gulf Coast non-birder if they’ve ever heard of a Northern Cardinal and you’ll most likely hear: “Sure, it’s the Redbird, right?”
Or ask a Gulf Coast non-birder if they’ve ever heard of a Northern Mockingbird and you’ll most likely hear a personal story of angst. A frequent example that I hear: “It’s that bird that lives in the tree outside my bedroom window and wakes me up too early with its non-stop loud springtime spring-forward singing!!!”
Or they’ll reply with even more angst: “It’s that ding-dang bird that lives in my front-yard trees and dive-bombs me when I’m taking the trash out to the front curb.” (Because the Mocker is in her springtime nest protection mode)
But if you ask a Gulf Coast non-birder if they’ve ever heard of a Sora, they’ll definitely reply with: “A what?”
Some of my best birding memories are about the bird. Sometimes the memories are about the events that lead to the find. And every once in a while, the memories are about both; and that’s my Sora story.
Let’s start with: What is a Sora? Well, here’s a picture. See her? She’s looking right at you. Well I almost didn’t either.
Look more closely at the bottom right area of the above photo. She really is looking right at you. Sora’s are close relatives to a family of birds called Rails, with many birding field guides referring to a Sora as a small Rail. And why does the word “rail” seem familiar to you?
These secretive birds, when looking right at you, are quite simply “as thin as a rail” and can disappear from viewing, especially when wearing their feathered camouflage that so perfectly matches their living-room habitat. And you thought the expression “thin as a rail” came from the railroad. Guess where the railroad system got the term?
But I’m getting ahead of this little story. Some number of years ago I was slowly birding Brazos Bend when a man and woman walked quickly and quietly past me, both wearing binoculars. They were walking at a purposefully-fast pace that didn’t match the binocular-wearing stereotype.
The man and woman abruptly stopped some fifteen yards ahead of me and so I abruptly stopped to watch these watchers. I don’t remember if it was the man or the woman, but one silently pointed down and into the swampy marsh, behind shrubs and trees. They both raised binoculars, for no more than fifteen seconds, and then turned to each other and high-fived with the biggest grins that silence would allow.
These two adults performed a trail-side dance in double hand-locked high-five mode. They ignored this watcher, even when ending their silent dance and walking back in the direction they came. They walked back past me, sharing not even a “hi”, and at this point I mainly focused on pretending NOT to be staring.
Well, what was a girl to do? I slowly and quietly walked to their binocular viewing position. And there she was: a new lifer. From my field guide studies I knew I was sighting a Rail relative, but I had to look up this amazing bird to identify the specific species: the Sora.
That Brazos Bend day I kept binoculars on the Sora some fifteen minutes, watching her feed and move slowly and silently about the marsh. I wondered and was amazed by two things: this lovely new lifer, and the two humans who not only gifted me with her sighting, but only viewed her for some fifteen seconds. I’ll always wonder about their effort to view; and then dismissing to dance after some fifteen seconds.
This story ends by moving forward in time: my first condo-on-wheels trip to West Texas and a first planned destination stop at the lovely Davis Mountains State Park. I’d studied and studied Western birding field guides to prepare for this trip. I felt prepared and hopeful to sight some new lifers, all western specialties that frequented the area.
On the way to Davis Mountains a spontaneous stop opened my eyes to the secret wetland garden of west Texas: Balmorhea State Park.
After the long drive it felt good to get out of the car and walk with binoculars; the dry air and desert habitat gave immediate pleasure to this Gulf Coastie. From a quick look at the Balmorhea State Park map I was drawn to an area called the reconstructed desert wetlands.
I walked to this desert wetland area, sighted movement and raised my binoculars. And what was the very FIRST bird this Gulf Coastie sighted way out west? The Sora.
I laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes. But there she was, moving about in this west Texas desert wetland; behaving exactly as she did at Brazos Bend. That sighting is one of my all time favorites; reality didn’t meet expectations. And oh what a surprise that can be!
And so those are my Sora stories. This week gave me my Sora photos. My birding style of standing and watching and looking for movement allowed me to catch the sighting of the Sora in the first photo. If I hadn’t stood silently and stared and scanned for some five minutes, I would have missed this sighting.
As soon as I sighted her movement, I ducked down behind a shrub, in my awkward squatting mode. I was rewarded with the Sora coming out and moving in my direction!
I captured these photos before my knees gave out, causing me to stand, which resulted, of course, in the Sora quickly and quietly disappearing from view.
I now have three Sora stories; and three almost good Sora photos.
And next time you hear someone say “thin as a rail” you can ask them if they’ve ever heard of a Sora.