Mystery marsh birds herald arrival of springtime | WHIDBEY BIRDING

Earlier this month the South Whidbey Birding in Neighborhoods group (BINS) spent some time at the marsh off Ewing Road in the Maxwelton Valley. I’d forgotten how delightful March in a marsh could be.

An American bittern peeks out from the brush.

Earlier this month the South Whidbey Birding in Neighborhoods group (BINS) spent some time at the marsh off Ewing Road in the Maxwelton Valley. I’d forgotten how delightful March in a marsh could be.

It was a brilliant, dry day and as soon as we stepped from the car, the spring sounds descended on us. Marsh wrens belted out their buzzy “chug-chug-chug” song, red-winged blackbirds greeted us with a grating “konk-ka-ree,” even a female mallard duck quacked a welcome.

And the surest sign of spring: the electric wire above our head was lined with migrating swallows. A mixed flock of about 20 tree swallows and two violet-green swallows rested and preened on the line, then took off as a unit and swooped over the ponds.

Ring-necked ducks, pied-billed grebes, buffleheads, northern pintails and gadwalls paddled around in bright breeding plumage, many already paired up for the season. Two great blue herons hunkered down, as still as statues.

We hoped to hear the early spring call of an American bittern, a deep-throated “pump-er-lunk.” This is the first of three mystery birds of the marsh that I’ll discuss in this column.

I call them mystery birds because they are usually well hidden in the deep marsh grasses, cryptically-plumed and unless you know their calls, you’ll likely miss them completely, particularly with all the other bird activity to entertain you.

The American bittern is the largest of the three. During most of the year these reclusive birds blend into the marsh reeds with their vertically striped brown and cream feathers. But come spring, they strut, fluff out their feathers and call loudly to each other and earn the nickname “thunder pumper” for their eerie calls mainly at dawn and dusk.

Craig Johnson photo | A Virginia rail wades through a marsh. One day last spring while birding this same area, the group counted five bitterns. That was a significant up-tick in the population for this marsh. Fingers crossed that we’ll have another spring with lots of bittern activity.

The second secretive freshwater marsh species is the Virginia rail. The bird’s rusty gray feathers blend in with the surroundings, so watch for a reddish bill and legs and upturned tail, if you are lucky enough to spot one.

These birds rarely fly, but are able to walk through densely packed reeds because of their laterally compressed body and flexible vertebrae. Listen for the rail’s “kid-ick, kid-ick, kid-ick” or “tic, tic, tic” calls.

The third and most difficult to find of these reclusive marsh birds is a sora. Although this species is the most abundant rail across North American, they are uncommon on Whidbey. Watch for a warm grey/brown bird with stubby yellow bill and black mask. Their loud descending whinny call is distinctive.

All three of these species can be found in other large marshes on South Whidbey, including Deer Lagoon. I’ve also seen rails and soras in fairly small marshes, such as the marsh at the base of Holmes Harbor, just east of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders.

Several years ago when my husband was recovering from knee surgery, his birding was restricted to the car. We stopped at that marsh and sat quietly in the car with our binoculars searching the reeds. We heard the rails calling and at one point one of them scooted briefly out of the marsh and ran along the shoulder of the road not five feet in front of the car.

Both rails and soras will respond to played recordings of their calls. They will approach the sound trying to find the “new bird in the marsh.” This practice of playing birdcalls should be limited to occasional scientific study and bird monitoring.

Since these birds rarely fly and must walk toward the recorded sound, sometimes across a large area, it stresses them. Using the recordings during breeding season can be especially harmful if it draws the parents away from the nest and leaves their eggs or young unprotected and vulnerable to predation.

I encourage birders to use their recording devices to help learn the bird vocalizations. But tuck the recordings away and don’t broadcast the sound when in the field.

Especially during spring nesting, we don’t want to disturb our three mystery marsh species, or any of the many Whidbey birds of the marshes, forests and fields.

Frances Wood can be reached at

Craig Johnson is at


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