Sora rail studies on the Patuxent River, Maryland

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The freshwater marshes of the tidal Patuxent River are well known for their annual fall concentration of migrant soras (Porzana carolina) and were formerly the most famous rail hunting grounds in the Chesapeake Bay region. Because of concern over the apparent long-term decline in number of soras and the decline in the quality of the Patuxent marshes, especially the loss of wild rice (Zizania aquatica), the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), co-steward of the Jug Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, sponsored rail-related research beginning in 1987.

Past efforts focused on developing efficient trapping techniques, age and sex criteria, and monitoring body mass dynamics. Noted progress was made in developing digital playback systems and trap improvements to enhance sora captures. These improvements increased capture success by over an order of magnitude and resulted in capture of 2,315 soras and 276 Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) in the 5 year period, 1993-97. Although these methods demonstrate the efficacy of banding large numbers of soras on migration and possibly winter concentration areas, captures at the Patuxent River site have been 70-90% hatching-year birds and recoveries and recaptures have been virtually nonexistent.

With the present effort, this outcome precludes population parameter estimation using traditional capture-recapture or recovery model methodologies. In 1996, studies were initiated to employ radio telemetry methods to investigate length of stay, habitat use, survival, and migration characteristics of fall migrant soras. These studies are ongoing and will be continued through 1998 with a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Webless Migratory Game Bird Research Program and support from the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Supplemental funding has also been provided by MNCPPC, FWS Region 5, the Maryland Ornithological Society, Quail Unlimited, and Prince Georges Community College.

During 1996-97 we developed a successful radio transmitter attachment technique to secure 1.8g radio transmitters over the synsacrum of migrant soras. We modified Rappole and Tipton's (1991) leg-loop attachment method by addition of a waist loop to prevent soras from slipping transmitters over their short tails. Thin gauge (0.6 mm) elastic thread proved ideal for attachment and allowed for girth expansion associated with fattening during stopover.

Sixty instrumented soras have been monitored in two years of study from early September until early November. Only a single mortality was recorded and 41 (68%) were confIrmed and another 13 (total 90%) were believed to have migrated from the study area. Only a single bird slipped a radio transmitter. Most birds demonstrated a sedentary nature in the marsh throughout stopover. Average length of stay was 44 days in 1997 (n=29) with peak departure occurring 20-24 October. Departing migrants were detected using a receiver/data-logger monitoring system placed 4 miles down river from the study site. Thirty-six of 37 (97%) soras departed in a 2-hour window of time, beginning 1 hour after sunset. Departure was synchronized with cold fronts on clear, starlit nights. Twenty-five soras were monitored on migration from 8 km to as far away as 770 km.

Findings indicate migration flight speeds of 40 to 50 mph and a direct southward orientation from the study site at least until contact with the Atlantic Ocean west of Cape Lookout, North Carolina. We also attempted to monitor passage of migrant soras radio tagged at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in western New York by biologist Soch Lor. None were recorded passing a monitoring unit at Haldeman Island in the middle of the Susquehanna River 10 miles north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This further corroborates our findings that when migrating overland, soras move in a direct southward orientation and are not following land features such as major rivers

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Sora rail studies on the Patuxent River, Maryland
Year Published 1999
Language English
Publisher U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Laurel, Md
Contributing office(s) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Description iv, 52
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Title Proceedings of the Marsh Bird Monitoring Workshop
First page 37 (abs)
Conference Title Marsh Bird Monitoring Workshop
Conference Location Patuxent Research Refuge, National Wildlife Visitor Center, Laurel, Maryland
Conference Date April 26-28, 1998