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Levin: The Virginia Rail

10/05/11 7:55AM By Ted Levin
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(HOST) As the region finds ways to cope with changes brought about by Tropical Storm Irene, commentator Ted Levin is reminded that sometimes, big weather events also rearrange little places.

(LEVIN)   There's a small pond that flanks the east side of Five Corners Road, where I live. The pond's overflow, ushered under the road by a pair of culverts, drains into the 60-acre marsh we call Coyote Hollow.

Over the fifteen years that we've lived here, I've seen muskrat, beaver, otter, mink, black bear, deer, long-tailed weasel, and coyote in the wetland. A friend spotted a moose grazing on water lilies. Another watched a mother bobcat teach her kittens to stalk muskrats. Eagles and ospreys stopped by the open water; and one April, an immature little blue heron, as white as new fallen snow, landed on a muskrat lodge and speared hapless wood frogs.

Bitterns nest in the marsh and sometimes feed along the rim of the pond. When the entire basin filled with water, marsh wrens wove nests in the emergent vegetation. Sometimes swamp sparrows and snipe make their homes here; sometimes not. It has to do with water levels.

This past July was dry. The derelict beaver dam at the southern end of the marsh sprung a leak; water levels were low, very low. In fact, runoff from the pond stopped, leaving behind a pool of stagnant water about the size of a kitchen table, the last tangible link between the marsh and the pond. At high water, when the pool has its own umbilicus through a stand of alders into the open, airy marsh, fish, turtles, tadpoles, and aquatic insects travel from the pond through the culvert into the pool and beyond. At low water, the pool more or less congeals into bowl of loose, smelly mud.

This summer, the pool became aquatically isolated from the pond and the marsh, an ephemeral body of water whose edges slowly tightened around the standing water. It was like the Everglades in the dry season writ small. Fish were trapped in the shrinking pool.

My son, William, who maintains a freshwater aquarium, soon discovered that the pool offered an unparalleled opportunity to catch stuff. He'd bring home black-faced dace, pumpkin-seed sunfish, and brown bullheads, which proved to be all mouth and stomach.

One afternoon, late in July, as William watched little fish dart through the shallows, trailing plumes of sediment behind them, a long-legged, robin-sized bird with a reddish, three-inch, sickle-shaped bill stepped out of the alders. The bird began to catch the small fish, a task made easy by the shrinking water.

After carefully studying our bird books, William determined that the mysterious bird was a Virginia rail, a paper-thin marsh bird, perfectly suited to walk through a vertical army of stems.

Although we stopped by the culvert on many occasions, no one ever saw the rail again. Now that Tropical Storm Irene has flushed the pool, reconnecting it to the marsh and liberating the stranded fish, the rail must be exploiting some other micro-habitat . . . somewhere across the eastern face of North America.
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