A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


The secretive Virginia Rail is probably more common than it seems, and these birds are more often heard than seen. Virginia Rails do, however, occasionally show themselves. Clapping your hands loudly in likely habitat will sometimes result in a head popping out momentarily--or more likely, a noisy response. Usually stays hidden in dense, reedy vegetation, sliding through the narrow spaces with ease, aided by its narrow profile and specially adapted bony structure, which features flexible vertebrae. Present year-round in Sonoma County, but reported numbers rise between September and December. According to Lukas, Virginia Rails tend to stay in freshwater marshy areas during breeding season, but they become more common in brackish areas and in saltwater marshes usually around the end of August with the arrival of migrants from the north.

Our only common long-billed rail. Other fairly common rails present in the county such as Sora (Porzana carolina), Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata), and American Coot (Fulica americana) have a rather different profile, with much shorter bills. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) and Clapper Rail (Rallus longirastris) have long bills but both birds are rare in Sonoma County. Clapper Rail is present in very small numbers and confined to the coast mainly in the Petaluma River drainage area. Black Rail, too, is present in the county, but also in very small numbers, mostly in the northern San Pablo Bay area (that is, at the extreme south of Sonoma County).

The presence of Virginia Rail is usually confirmed by hearing its distinctive vocalizations (link below). The birds make various sounds including a descending wak-wak-wak, and variations on kik! and kedek! If you see a Virginia Rail, note the slender orange, down-curved bill; the grey cheeks; and the white chin--aside from the plump silhouette and the overall rusty color of the bird. There is usually a little white above and in front of the eye. Note also the darkly barred lower belly and vent. Juveniles are more darkly colored than adults, with much black where adults are rust colored. A small rail, at only about 9 inches from head to toe. 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 46

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 160

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 62

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 148

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 158

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 185-186

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 98

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 130

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 140

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 162

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 85-86

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 25

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 128

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 126

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 118

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 135

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 201

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 123

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



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

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.


Virginia Rail

Rallus limicola

Virginia Rail, East Rail Pond, Bodega Bay, September 10, 2013

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 18, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County