Operation Target Species: Marsh birds

NAAS members are joining with USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the University of Arizona in conducting marsh bird surveys at three of our Sanctuaries: Bubbling Ponds Preserve, Sedona and Kachina Wetlands.

Target species for our area are:

  1. Pied-billed Grebe
  2. Virginia Rail
  3. Sora
  4. American Coot

Common Gallinule is a possibility. Least Bitterns are usually only seen/heard at Dead Horse State Park; however, a birder can always hope!

Pied-Billed-Grebe – Eric Gofreed

The Pied-billed Grebe (PBGR) is a fascinating bird that Cornell calls “part bird, part submarine” due to its sinking behavior. It can adjust its “buoyancy and often use this ability to float with just the upper half of the head above the water. They catch small fish and invertebrates by diving or simply slowly submerging.”

The Latin genus name for “grebe” means “feet at the buttocks”—an apt descriptor for these birds, whose feet are indeed located near their rear ends. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pied-billed_Grebe/overview

Grebes eat their own feathers and feed them to young. The feathers can act like a sieve to stop harmful parts of their prey from going into the intestines.

The PBGR is one of the 107 species mapped by eBird Status and Trends maps: https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/pibgre

To learn more about this fascinating sinking bird, listen to the two-minute BirdNote episode: https://www.birdnote.org/show/amazing-pied-billed-grebe

Virginia Rail – Eric Gofreed

Another target species that is fun to learn about is the Virginia Rail (VIRA). Yes, “thin as a rail” comes from the “laterally compressed” rail’s structure.

The Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas is a great source of information on nest building of different species. The Atlas tells that VIRAs can construct up to five additional “dummy” nests for feeding, brooding, resting, or in case of flooding.

Sora – Eric Gofreed

The target species, Sora, makes a ramp leading up to its nest. They will also pull down vegetation surrounding the nest and tuck it into the nest rim on the opposite side to make an overhead canopy.

The Common Gallinule (COGA) is fairly rare in our area, but one individual has been seen at the Sedona Wetlands. The atlas tells us that above 3,000 ft. they are “at least partially migratory”.  It would be nice if this bird would bring back a mate so that we could observe their allopreening behavior: “Birds seeking allopreening adopt specific, ritualised postures to signal so; they may fluff their feathers out, for example, or put their heads down.”

Why track marsh birds?

Populations of marsh birds may be affected by accumulation of environmental contaminants in wetland substrates because they consume a wide variety of aquatic invertebrates (Odom 1975, Klaas et al. 1980, Eddleman et al. 1988, Gibbs et al. 1992, Conway 1995). Marsh birds are also vulnerable to invasion of wetlands by many invasive plant species (e.g., Lythrum salicaria, hybrid Typha, Phalaris arundinacea, Phragmites, etc.) (Gibbs et al. 1992, Meanley 1992). Hence, marsh birds may represent “indicator species” for assessing wetland ecosystem quality, and their presence can be used as one measure of the success of wetland restoration efforts. https://www.cals.arizona.edu/research/azfwru/NationalMarshBird/

If marsh birds can inform the preservation of wetland ecosystems at our sanctuaries, that’s a conservation win!  

So, this spring, we will be perking up our ears to hear the distinct vocalizations of these secretive birds: 

  • “Kuk-kuk-kaow, kaow, kaow” – gulping and braying notes of the PBGR
  • “Tick-it” or duet grunts of VIRA
  • Whinnying Sora
  • Clucks and cackles of American Coots (the birds not old bird watchers😉)

Submitted by Kay Hawklee

Conservation Committee and Board Member