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NATURE’S VIEW: Photographing the Virginia Rail of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Story and photographs by Jim Clark

By March 14, 2015No Comments

The notes of the rail came loudly to my ear, and on moving toward the spot whence they proceeded, I observed the bird exhibiting the full ardor of his passion. Each time it passed before her, it would pause for a moment…and bow to her with all the grace of a well-bred suitor of our own species.—John James Audubon, 1840

What Audubon witnessed is something most folks will never see as this secretive marsh bird is heard more than it is seen. In 1926, ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote this about how to see a Virginia rail: “Take up one’s station near a pond or marsh frequented by them and watch patiently, silently, and immobile….” Wow, patience. What a concept.

Virginia rail at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland.

Virginia rail at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland.

From a personal perspective, I believe in the serendipity of patience—a phrase I coined to describe the ability to give opportunity a chance and then to make the most of a moment. Serendipity of patience happens when you remain open with your thoughts and time.

In a fast-paced, internet-driven society of quick clicks, this concept may be difficult to accept, much less put into practice. I love the act of patience as I believe in allowing time to be an opportunity and not an issue or a challenge. But I digress. What does this have to do with photographing a rail?

The Virginia rail loves the Olney three-square bulrush marsh—a fancy name for a productive marsh ecosystem along the eastern shore of Maryland, especially at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. A marsh with a combination of dense emergent vegetation interspersed with open shallow water and mud flats creates the perfect recipe for rail habitat.

Marsh habitat along Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Marsh habitat along Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Virginia rails have a vocal repertoire of squeaks, chatters, moans and grunts. Acquire the skill to identify the rail’s various noises, and with serendipity of patience, you might capture an image of this mysterious marsh bird.

Last spring, while on my way home after leading a week-long workshop, I decided to spend a few hours exploring the marshes at Blackwater.

I heard Virginia rails calling from the extensive stands of marsh. Working on a hunch, I went to a boardwalk that extended into a small portion of marsh. My hunch worked as the rails were vocal there as well.

I stayed on the boardwalk for the rest of the day and followed Arthur Cleveland Bent’s advice. I enjoyed a private moment while waiting, remaining silent and keeping relatively still. I was rewarded with nature unfolding in front of me—from ospreys diving into the water, to red-headed woodpeckers probing for insects on the snag trees, to great blue herons waiting for the right moment to spear a fish. I allowed time to be an ally, an opportunity to capture more than an image. I gained a memory.

Then, the rail’s calls began again. The calls got closer. Then a little closer. Closer still. It’s here in front of me somewhere!

Virginia Rail gathering nesting material at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland.

Virginia Rail gathering nesting material at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland.

As the ambient light faded and day gave way to the early evening, a lone rail emerged from the marsh and started collecting nesting material. The bird hopped onto the boardwalk, walked across it and jumped back into the marsh. Suddenly, another rail emerged from the marsh and started feeding in front of me. From that time until near dark, the rails stayed in view, and I was rewarded with a card full of images.

A past NANPA president, Jim Clark is the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia, and a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine. He currently serves as photographer-in-residence at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve near his home in Leesburg, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at, blog at or like him on Facebook.