We live in a time when, with only a minimum of effort on our part, just about anything can show up at our front door. In the past year I have ordered and received two out of print books, a handful of vintage briar pipes, and a custom motorcycle helmet. Oh, and a pizza.
A few weeks ago when I had COVID, I was also the lucky recipient of soups and other feel-good meals from dear friends who first called, from a safe distance, then left treats on the doorstep.
Sometimes, however, what appears is completely unexpected. Last year, for example, I received a Priority Mailbox that smelled like heaven, like sweet baked goods. I was super excited, but then I realized the package was sent from Texas, where I don’t know anyone, and was addressed to someone in Princeton, Illinois, who isn’t even not close to St. Charles. With a pang of nostalgia for what might have been, I put the box back on the step, with a note to the USPS, and had a bowl of ice cream.
But even a wandering candy box seems pretty unremarkable compared to what appeared on my friend Amber Walker’s porch a few weeks ago. She hadn’t ordered it and hadn’t expected it; in fact, she didn’t even know it was there until her daughter mentioned that something seemed to be struggling to come out from behind the planter.
As in a knock-knock joke but with a touch of nature, Amber moved the planter to find, there on her porch, a Virginia rail, Rallus limicola.
Rails are considered rare in our area, and their secretive habits and preference for wet areas make them even harder to spot. But sitting there on the concrete step, it was a Virginia rail that was hard to miss.
“I pulled the jar away from the wall and was ready to pull it out, but with enough room to move it came out on its own,” Amber recalled the other day. “Then it sat there for about three hours and flew off at 8:23 p.m.”
We can only guess where the bird came from and where it was heading. The rails migrate south in the winter, and those from this area are thought to head towards the Gulf Coast. As for the summer breeding grounds, they begin here and extend north through Wisconsin and Michigan and into southern Canada.
Whether here or there, birds head for swampy areas where the cover of cattails and other wetland vegetation is thick. Their slender bodies, which ornithologists describe as “compressed laterally,” are especially suited for squeezing through tight spaces between plants.
With the eggs on the way, the males and females work together to build not just one or two, but several basket-like nests. Although only one can contain the future family, the others serve as decoys to deceive predators attacking the nests.
Ah, but nest building is just one of the many qualities of this fascinating bird. They are avid hunters of many marsh dwellers, including insects, spiders, snails, and crayfish, as well as small fish and frogs.
And, speaking of frogs, if you’re near a swamp at dawn or dusk this spring and you think you hear a frog screeching, but it sounds a little wonky, you might hear a rail of Virginia. The high-pitched song of the bird, as well as other chirps and squeals, sound, to me anyway, a bit like the call of a thug who is not in his game. These various words, as well as the growls, which I swear sound like a cross between a guinea pig and a real one, are good clues that the Virginia rails are nearby – even if you can’t see them.
Amber told me that she periodically checks on her guest at the door during the evening. Suspecting it was a nocturnal migrant (as so many of our spring visitors are), she checked on the bird about every 20 minutes during the evening. Glancing cautiously through a window, she saw that he was there at 7:50 a.m. and 8:10 a.m. But at 8:30 it was gone.
Hmm… Let’s think about it for a minute. Earlier, Amber said the rail flew off at 8:23 p.m. But she still checked the walk before seven minutes later. Which give?
Remember how we said we live in a time when just about anything can show up at our front door? In order to keep track of these arrivals, expected or not, many people have installed doorbell cameras. And walkers are no different.
Just as it captures the arrival of delivery people and other high-profile visitors, their Ring camera also recorded a very big departure. See you soon, little rail! And thanks for the reminder that, especially during migration, always remember to check behind the planter.
• Pam Otto is the Outreach Ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or [email protected].