A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)



Porzana carolina

Sora is not an especially uncommon bird in Sonoma County in appropriate habitat, but because of its secretive ways, it's heard far more often than it's seen. Prefers to stay hidden in grasses, reeds and other growth in freshwater marshes and pond edges, although it may sometimes be seen walking along banks. Usually solitary. May use open wet areas during migration. Occasionally uses saltwater marshes. This small (about 9 inches or 22cm long) plump rail is recognized by its short, bright yellow bill; bluish-grey neck and breast (with a brown cap and black at the throat and on the face); short, upturned tail; and its pretty, edged feathers that give the bird a scalloped look elsewhere. White or buff under the tail. Often flicks its tail. During breeding season, the iris of the eye changes to black from the normal reddish-brown. Immature birds are browner overall and lack the black on the face and throat. Chicks are all-black with red at the base of the bill and a yellow-orange "beard" (see photo below). The baby birds quickly begin to acquire a browner look and spotting as they mature. Sora chicks of the same brood hatch successively over many days, so--if you are lucky enough to see a Sora with chicks--it is not uncommon to see birds at different stages of development at the same time together with adults. Note, however, that the first-ever confirmed breeding Sora pair was recorded in Sonoma County only recently. I was privileged to photograph the birds with chicks discovered by Lisa Hug and Linda Hammer in the Laguna de Santa Rosa May 14, 2011 on the following day to confirm that record (photos below). According to Birds of Sonoma County California, Sora has usually left the area by late April to breed further north, returning in early September.

Unlikely to be confused with any other bird (our only rail-like bird with a short, yellow bill). Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola) is a rich rusty brown with a long, pointed bill. Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris) and Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) have been recorded in the county but are much rarer birds, mostly found in the Petaluma River drainage area and the salty marshes in the extreme south of the county, just north of San Pablo Bay (although there are records for Black Rail at Shollenberger Park).  

The voice is usually described as a high-pitched but descending whinny that slows toward the end. Sora also makes a loud, sharp keek! when alarmed. May also produce a loud koo-eeeee? Other sounds possible. Compare voice with Virginia Rail, our only other fairly common rail (links below).  

Selected County Sightings: Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility (November 5, 2011); Spring Lake (October 15, 2011), Laguna de Santa Rosa (May 14-15, 2011), Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility (January 30, 2010), Shollenberger Park (October 9, 2010), Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facililty (November 9, 2011).   

Further reading: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, pg. 148; Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pg. 118; Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pg. 126; Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, pg. 136; Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, pg. 46; The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, pg. 100; Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pg. 130; Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, pg. 189.

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Sora

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Virginia Rail



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Sora chick, Laguna de Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, May 15, 2011

The first-ever confirmed Sora breeding record in the county

Breeding Sora, Laguna de Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, May 15, 2011

This is the first-ever confirmed Sora breeding record in the county. Note black iris of breeding plumage.

Sora, Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, November 5, 2011

Non-breeding plumage. Note reddish-brown iris. This bird has a rather buff-colored rear end (often whiter).