The Shy And Secretive Virginia Rail

Getting this shot was nothing more than dumb luck – especially considering my “buck fever” at the time.

Virginia Rails are one of the most elusive birds in North America and even though they’re widespread in the US some dedicated birders have never even seen one and I’ve heard more than one veteran bird photographer say they’ve never photographed the species. But back in June of 2008 this adventuresome specimen popped out right in front of me on the road at Farmington Bay WMA. At the time I was so new to bird photography that I barely knew which end of my recently purchased 500 mm lens to point at the bird – and I’m not kidding!

  • Note – I’ve posted this photo previously, way back on October 12, 2012, but as is my occasional practice I decided it was worthy of a rerun because most present blog readers have never seen it. And I like it a lot!


1/800, f/8, ISO 400, Canon 40D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I was only able to get four shots of it and this was the only sharp one – probably because I had buck fever and my shutter speed was relatively low. Hell, to be perfectly honest I didn’t even know what species I had in my viewfinder but I did sense it was special and I actually remember shaking as I tried to maneuver my pickup to get the shot before the bird disappeared into the reeds. Thankfully I no longer shake with excitement when I encounter “special” birds and that’s a very good thing for a bird photographer.

The Virginia Rail is the epitome of elusiveness. Though their populations are relatively stable, they’re so very secretive that most folks rarely if ever see them and when they do they typically only get a fleeting glimpse of the bird through the reeds. Their laterally compressed bodies (which isn’t very evident here because of the unusual pose) allow them to squeeze through extremely narrow gaps in vegetation so they usually seem to disappear as if by magic.

Relatively little is known about these fresh water game birds (hunting them is permitted) because of their extremely shy habits and the fact that hunters show virtually no interest in them so there’s been very little research done on their natural history.

In the nine years since I took this photo I’ve only had two or three decent opportunities with Virginia Rails and this is still my favorite image of the species. If I hadn’t been able to get this single shot sharp I’d be kicking my own backside to this day.

It isn’t a terribly attractive setting but if the bird had been in its preferred habitat I’d have never seen it at all. So I’ll take it.


PS – Back in 2012 when I originally posted this image, blog follower Sharon Constant made the following comment about the pose of this bird. Sharon’s comment made me smile back then and I smiled again last night while I was preparing today’s post:

  • “Like a southern belle adjusting her bustle as she walks off the ballroom floor.”


35 comments to The Shy And Secretive Virginia Rail

  • Dick Harlow

    Beautiful shot Ron, congratulations! Happy 4th!!

  • Joanne OBrien

    Love looking at this gorgeous bird and gorgeous photo! Love the Virginia Rail lore too.

  • Marty K

    Totally worth the rerun! Sharon’s comment is spot-on — looks like it’s getting ready to curtsey. What a gorgeous bird!

  • A beautiful bird. Love Sharon’s comment. Some days luck is a lady. And other days she is a female dog.
    My pacifist self, hearing that these birds are hunted, hopes that they too rarely see them.

  • Chris Sanborn

    Lovely bird, great photo — and Sharon’s comment is exactly right. I was thinking along the lines of “sassy pants” or something, but not elegant enough for this elegant bird. And I do like the background, it’s a nice complement to the bird’s gorgeous rust-colored feathers.

  • Laura Culley

    What a lovely image of a lovely bird! I love the feather detail and the pose, that beautiful sliver of time. Spectacular!

  • Wonderful shot, Ron! I saw my one and only on an outing with a small Audubon group. We were all standing in a semicircle looking up at a raptor when the leader quietly told us to look down. There, not ten feet away, was a Virginia Rail, trying to be incognito in the reeds. I took a series of shots with my 300mm and got some beautiful close ups. Soon, it realized its predicament and skittered away. I knew how lucky we were only when the leader emphasized how he had never seen one in all his years of birding. And me a newbie birder at the time!

  • April Olson

    Beautiful photo, you were very lucky. I have never seen on in the wild only in rehab. I know why it has it’s name because it truly was as skinny as a rail!

  • I’ve only gotten to see a Virginia Rail twice… both were around the same location (but different years), and both times it was a mother and her black fuzzy babies. Such a thrill to be able to see them!

  • Patty Chadwick

    Widespread or not, I ‘ve never seen one of these beautiful birds in the wild…I actually like the background in this image as it grounds the bird but in no way distracts from the overall impact…WONDERFUL!!!

    • Most people are in the same group as you, Patty – they’ve never seen one. Many of heard them calling but have no idea what they’re hearing. Thank you.

  • Linda Civey

    That is a pretty bird and excellent photo capture. The feather are rich in color!

  • Susan Stone

    I like this a shot lot. And Sharon’s comment. Once again, the bird’s feet fascinate me. I think it looks like the bird is about to take a step with its right foot.

    • Susan, I think what caused that right foot pose was the fact that the bird heard my shutter go off and paused in mid-stride to look back and see where the sound was coming from. And if it represented a potential threat.

  • Diane Bricmont

    Amazing shot, Ron! Every photo I’ve taken of this species is 80% reeds, 20% bird!

  • Len Boeder

    Wonderful image of a very elusive bird!

  • What rich color ! I think this is a truly handsome image.

  • Judy Gusick

    Gorgeous bird! 🙂 Sharon’s comment appropriate…………:) Know I’ve never seen one or even if we have them here…….. P.S. the bull snake (or another) made it back to this side of the creek and succeeded in getting a young Robin or Robin Egg lunch…………….

    • Wow, you sure predicted what that snake would do, Judy.

      I’m pretty sure you have Virginia Rails up there in your area of MT but they truly are VERY difficult to ever actually see.

      • Judy Gusick

        The bull snakes are predictable when it comes to that. Hate to kill them but don’t want them by the house as they startle the hell out of us! 🙂 It’s an annual “thing” – yard is cool, lots of trees and nests………… I’ll have to watch for the Virginia Rails in the cat tail areas in the vicinity…..