Sora Rail – Stover Country Park, Devon

While at work late on the afternoon of Wednesday 19th January Sara rang me to say that my pager, which I usually leave at home, had been bleeping. I assumed that someone had been sending me a personal message, the only other possibility being a Mega Alert which is fairly unlikely in January. I was surprised to hear that it was indeed a Mega Alert and that the bird in question was a tick for me and it was only 2 hours from Poole.

A 1st winter Sora Rail, the 13th record for Britain, had been discovered in Devon at Stover Country Park 3 miles north west of Newton Abbott. There was no way I could get there on Thursday or Friday and we were going to my parents for the weekend. I began to try and work out a way that Dad and I could go although I wasn’t sure when we would get the time. I mentioned it to Dad and Sara but no arrangements were made.

When we arrived at Wellow on the Friday evening Mum suggested that we all went to Clownabout in Salisbury on Saturday and that Dad would take me and the Girls swimming on Sunday. It sounded like an enjoyable weekend but there was certainly no room for a trip to Devon. Dad and I made an arrangement to go and see the Rail on the following Saturday (!) provided it was still present.

The following week at work was frustrating although it seemed that there was a reasonable possibility that the bird would hang around until the weekend. The rail was unlikely to feel the urge to migrate until perhaps March and unless it got spooked by large crowds, died because of cold weather, moved on because of lack or food or became really skulking then we had a fair chance. The pager suggested that the rail was showing very well intermittently, down to 5 yards but often disappearing for short periods.

Every morning during the week Dad would ring me to say that the bird was still present and we counted down the days until the weekend. There was a sharp frost midweek but thankfully the bird survived and with its continued presence on Friday morning it was all systems go for Saturday.

Dad picked me up at 7:20am and we were on the road by 7:30am. We arrived at the Country Park at around 9:30am, this was about the time that the bird seemed to show in the mornings. There was a large number of cars present, presumably birders who hadn’t managed to see the bird last weekend or get there during the week.

We followed the small lake around to the gathered crowd and began to wait for the rail to show. The favoured area seemed to be between us and the north side of the lake, it was fairly dense mixed vegetation with occasional gaps. The lake was only about 30 yards wide at the furthest point and so if the bird showed it wouldn’t be too far away. As the minutes ticked away we began to get a bit concerned. Several Water Rails caused excitement but there had been no sightings by 10:55am.

I was particularly despondent as it appeared to me that even if the bird was still present the vegetation could hide it for several hours, I also didn’t really want to leave Sara with the girls all day and so I was conscious that we were beginning to run out of time. There was also the concern that the recent rain may have altered the water levels and caused the rail to move to another area of vegetation or move on altogether. We decided to head back to the car for a cup of tea and some Christmas cake, the car was a 5 minute walk.

As we neared the car park several birders who were stood nearby called out “it’s back!!” and we looked up to see the crowd moving quickly on the other side of the lake. Needless to say we headed back to where we had just come from. As we joined the crowd we realised that viewing would be very difficult and even if we saw the bird we were likely to be hampered by other birders getting in the way and by the dense foliage in which the rail had been re-located. We waited again but there were no further sightings. Even though the pager had confirmed this sighting I still had nagging doubts over whether the bird had actually been seen, particularly considering the number of Water Rails that were kicking around. At about 12:15 we headed back to the car again. After a quick lunch and a visit to the toilet we headed back to the lake.

As we got to the place where we had seen the crowd rushing earlier on in the day we looked across the lake and once again we saw the crowd rushing. This time we jogged back to the crowd. Things looked a little more promising this time as the crowd seemed to be looking in the same direction and at fairly short range. Sure enough several birders directed me on to the bird as it skulked away into the dense vegetation. The Sora had been only 10 yards way but because of direct facing sunshine and the dense cover my views were not 100% satisfactory. In fact I would have been hard pushed to separate the bird from Spotted Crake. This was how things remained until 2pm when we headed back to the car for the journey home.

Dad rang home and as Mum answered the phone my pager reported that the rail was showing again and showing well this time. Dad explained that we had seen the bird but not well and that it had just reappeared again. Mum’s suggestion that we went back again was just the persuasion I needed and we set off from the car for the 4th and last time. This time the rail had moved a full 100 yards around the lake to an area of more open cover.

Once again several birders directed me on to the bird, it was only 5 yards way!! This time we had stunning views and we watched continuously for a full 15 minutes scrutinising every feature in minute detail. It was feeding energetically and seemed totally unfazed by the large crowd close at hand. The main identification features were the black median crown stripe, the unmarked grey brown chest and throat, the black lores and chin, the bright yellow bill and the small white mark behind the eye. We bought a photograph each and left the site at 2:30pm very relieved.

The Sora Rail stayed a further 10 weeks (!) and was last seen on the 9th April.

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