Elusive rails are a rare - and fun - find

Bird-watching: Here are some of the best spots in Eastern Iowa

A sora rail forages at Waterworks Prairie Park in Iowa City. This park offers excellent paved walking trails, some which
A sora rail forages at Waterworks Prairie Park in Iowa City. This park offers excellent paved walking trails, some which pass closely to small wetland pools that can have sora and Virginia rail. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)

Rails are perhaps the champions at social distancing in the bird world.

They are secretive, elusive and often only heard. In the southern states it is legal to hunt rails, but in Iowa the only shooting allowed is with a camera.

Rails are the swamp chickens of freshwater and saltwater marshes across the globe. In the United States, we have seven breeding species. Three of these species breed in Iowa, which are sora, Virginia rail and king rail. The yellow rail is migratory through Iowa in the spring and fall, breeding farther north. The black rail is exceedingly rare in Iowa, only showing up accidentally.

Our most commonly seen rails in Iowa are the sora and Virginia. The yellow and king rail are birds most people will not see in a lifetime. With enough years of looking at the right time and in the right habitat (and with some luck), it is possible to run into a yellow or king.

Our smallest occurring rail, the black rail, is perhaps the most sought-after bird species in North America.

Among the rails, the sora is medium in size, at about the length of a red-winged blackbird. It is a stocky bird, with proportions more like a quail. It has a yellowish-green triangular-shaped bill and a black face and throat with gray cheeks transitioning into a white belly covered with blackish-brown barring. The backside is a dazzling assembly of brown with dark-centered feathers accompanied by short, linear white streaks.

Like other rails, sora can attenuate themselves when searching for food. This can make them appear slender. Like a wren, they often hold their short, stubby tail feathers straight up. They have long legs, which are yellowish-green, sporting large, wide feet adapted for walking on the tops of marshy habitat.

As previously noted, rails are often only heard. Soras are no exception. Their call is unmistakable. It is a whinny that starts out high-pitched and descends rapidly downward. Being in a marsh surrounded by the sounds of sora whinnies is a fun experience.


Look for sora and other rails in shallow, marshy habitat with either lots of floating vegetation or fringed with muddy banks. The boardwalk trail at Wickiup Hill Learning Center is perhaps the best place to view sora and Virginia rails in the upcoming weeks. The dike trails and roads at Cone Marsh Wildlife Management Area can be a fruitful place to spot these rail species along with other wetland birds.

The yellow rail is our only species adapted to wet meadows and sedge marshes. It is perhaps the most secretive of all our regularly occurring rails because of its desire not to be out in the open. Consider yourself extremely lucky if you see a yellow rail. Chain Lakes Natural Area is Linn County is a place where this species is known to occur in the spring and in late September and October.


If patience is a virtue, then be virtuous for the perfect shot. Some of the best photographers spend copious amount of time waiting for the shot they want.

I was once told a photographer spent nearly a month at a lodge in Costa Rica in order to get the perfect photo of a male long-tailed manakin doing its breeding display. While waiting weeks to get a shot may seem unconventional, waiting a few hours or even a few extra minutes may lead to the shot you desire.

Since camera memory cards now come with seemingly endless amounts of storage, do not be afraid to take as many photos as you need to get a shot you are satisfied with. Just remember, the more photos you take the more time you need to later review them. Some combat this by either making a mental note or jotting down the file number of their best shots while in the field. The file number can be found using several displays on the camera, including the LCD screen on the back, the control panel on top and while looking in the viewfinder.

Also remember, if you do take lots of photos in the field make sure to have plenty of backup memory cards at your disposal. Bring those backup cards with you wherever you go.


May is the month when many breeding birds come back to Iowa. It also is a month when many non-breeding, migratory birds pass through Iowa on their way north. Therefore, if you want to see a wide variety of bird species, visit a wide variety of habitats and often. Early morning is usually the best time to see birds that have just migrated overnight and need to immediately feed at sunrise. By midday bird activity usually wanes out until picking back up in the evening. However, some days birds will be active throughout the entire day. Some days it can feel like you never put your binoculars down.

The best places to find warblers, vireo, cuckoos, tanagers, thrushes, catbirds, flycatchers, etc.:

— Squaw Creek Regional Park (Linn County) offers excellent woodland bird-watching along the horse trails on the west side. There is a ravine trail on the west side as well that can be spectacular in May. The wooded trails on the southern end can be accessed via a small parking lot along Squaw Ridge Road.


— Faulkes Heritage Woods (Linn County) offers closed canopy woods, which are excellent for tanagers and towhees. Expect many types of woodland birds here in May.

— Similar to Faulkes, Palisades-Kepler State Park (Linn County) offers closed canopy woodland on a much larger scale.

— Wickiup Hill Learning Center and Wickiup Hill County Park (Linn County) have a nice variety of habitat along trails aptly named for those habitats. The savanna trail is popular for passerine bird-watching.

— Hickory Hill Park (Johnson County) is famous for its warbler walks in late April and most of May. This year, however, the walks are canceled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

— Sugar Bottom Recreational Area (Johnson County)

— Squire Point (Johnson County) can rival Hickory Hill Park on days intense migration.

— Lake Macbride State Park (Johnson County)

— Kent Park (Johnson County)

Places to look for loons, grebes, pelicans, scoters, terns:

— Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area (Linn/Benton counties)

— Cedar Lake (Linn County)

— Lake Macbride (Johnson County) has a north and south arm. The north is usually the most productive, but the south is worth checking. The best access is at the end of Polk Avenue and Opie Avenue, which are west of Solon and on the north side of the lake.

— Coralville Lake (Johnson County) has its best access points at the boat launch at the end of Curtis Bridge Road (via Highway 965), the Mehaffey Bridge area, Sandy Beach Public Use Area, Lake Macbride State Park, Sugar Bottom Recreational Area and West Overlook Beach near the dam area.

— Terry Trueblood Recreation Area (Johnson County) offers a paved trail around Sand Lake, giving you various angles of approach when viewing birds on or near the water.

Places to look for wading birds, such as herons, egrets and other marsh birds, such as bitterns and rails:

— Palo Marsh Natural Area (Linn County)

— Chain-O-Lakes WMA (Linn County)


— Hawkeye WMA (Johnson County) is an expansive place with many great birding hot spots. Click here for more specific directions to birding sites in Johnson County, including hot spots at Hawkeye WMA.

— Cedar River Landing Conservation Area (Johnson County)

— Cone Marsh WMA (Louisa County)

— Muskrat Slough WMA (Jones County)

— Port Louisa NWR (Louisa County)

Places to look for shorebirds:

— Hawkeye WMA (Sand Point, north dead end of James Ave)

— Cone Marsh WMA

— Cedar River Landing Conservation Area

— Sandy Beach Public Use Area

Of the following birding locations mentioned, note that these places offer a wide variety of habitats, which increases the number of birds species you can see: Pleasant Creek SRA, Wickiup Hill/Chain-O-Lakes, Squaw Creek RP, Hawkeye WMA, Muskrat Slough WMA, Terry Trueblood RA, Cedar River Landing Conservation Area, Kent Park, Cone Marsh WMA and Port Louisa NWR.


All bird club meetings, bird courses, bird walks and field trips are canceled in May due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions.

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