Virginia Rails at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Virginia Rail foraging in a marsh at Bear River Migratory Bird RefugeVirginia Rail foraging in a marsh at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 720, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

Virginia Rails are secretive marsh birds that can be found at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge during the breeding season and the can be very difficult to see let alone photograph. Usually when I do see them they are gone before I can raise my lens and focus on them. To see the rails at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge one needs to drive the auto tour route slowly or be in a stationary position near habitat suitable for their needs and when they are seen there are times when you’ll need patience to see if they will come out into the open. The blend into their habitat very easily and more people hear them than see them.

A Virginia Rail and its reflectionA Virginia Rail and its reflection – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 450, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

These rails need shallow water and mudflats within the marshes for the habitat to be suitable. They feed on small fish and invertebrates that they find by probing with their bill.

Virginia Rails are migratory but some range maps show a few locations in Utah where they can be found year round. Climate change may of course change that.

A dead Virginia Rail on a fence postA dead Virginia Rail on a fence post – Nikon D810, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 640, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

Earlier in August on the way to the auto tour route before the sun had risen completely over the mountains I spotted what I thought might be a nighthawk resting on a fence post that turned out to be a dead Virginia Rail. I am fairly certain that it did not die on the fence post and that someone may have put the rail on the fence instead of leaving it in the road. If so, they have my respect.

Before long the Virginia Rails and Soras (their close relative) will be heading south to their wintering grounds so if you would like to see them here in Utah head out to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge soon!

Life is good.



  1. Sterling Sanders August 20, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Excellent shots Mia. We did see them at the refuge also, but they were quite shy, so it’s nice to really see what they look like. Today the auto tour route at the Bear River Refuge was closed. They are using aircraft to spray the Phragmites in their attempt to eradicate them. The road will also be closed tomorrow for most of the day.

  2. Elephant's Child August 20, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    With that amazing camoflague I am not suprised that they can be heard before being seen.
    Thank you.

  3. Chris Rohrer August 20, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Hmmmm…..I like this place. It sounds pretty awesome. And it’s not often one gets to see VIRA out in the open. Very nice!

  4. Mia McPherson August 20, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Thank you Susan, Wally, Bobby and Patty!

    Susan, that is interesting that your rails aren’t shy like ours are.

    Wally, I had trouble photographing rails in Florida too because I would see them and they would simply disappear into the vegetation.

  5. David Irons August 20, 2015 at 11:08 am

    Mia, It should be pointed out that all of the Virginia Rails in your photos (including the dead one) are hatch-year birds (hatched this summer). Where I live in Oregon, late July thru early September is absolutely the best time of year to see and photograph Virginia Rails because the young of the year are far more prone to wander out in the open and stay in plain view. They embody the notion of “dumb juvie,” often feeding out on open mud for minutes at a time. I’ve watched and photographed hatch-year birds from as close as 20 feet this time of year. Unfortunately, it is extremely rare for adults to be similarly. confiding.

    • Mia McPherson August 20, 2015 at 11:12 am


      Thanks! I should have mentioned these are hatch year birds but I was in a hurry to get my post published this morning and didn’t get that done. I wasn’t aware that they were as confiding as juvenile raptors can be! Thank you again for providing that information!

  6. Susan Stone August 20, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Beautiful bird. The only Rail I’ve ever seen was on the Great Barrier Reef – Buff-banded Rails, one of which had chicks. They were not at all shy, maybe because they are used to having people around them? They were fun birds to observe.

  7. Bob Mcpherson August 20, 2015 at 8:19 am

    All wonderful shots, Mia. Specially the reflection. So sorry of the one who went on to Happy Hunting Grounds.

  8. Wally August 20, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Our only chance to see these elusive rails is during migration. Hopefully, THIS is the year I can get an image of one! Thanks, Mia, for the inspiration!

  9. Patty Chadwick August 20, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Interesting sound…I might not know what it was except for hearing it here…too sharp to be a frog..trying to figure it out would probably drive me nuts!!

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