Manabi Province, Ecuador – One lone migratory bird has selected Portoviejo’s Parque las Vegas as its winter-vacation destination. Yay! Welcome back, lovely Sora!

This Sora’s extended visit to Portoviejo stretched from January 2020 until March 21, the last date I last saw this one, which was one of three.

A year ago, the park provided ideal habit for the Soras. Of course they would want to return!

Few people of the area know of this rare migrant, one that does not present risks, one that travels without a passport, yet passes through six or more countries in order to be a Manaba in residence for the next three or four months!

Cornell-eBird’s Sora ‘Abundance Map’ for 2020.

This eBird map shows recorded sightings from January through December 2020.

With anticipation, I’ve been watching the park weekly in hopes that the Soras’ return.  If more people knew of its possible return, might they help to be sure it had comfortable accommodations? Could the Soras become the darlings (mascots) for the city of Portoviejo?

Photos of the newest visitor show natural geometry in motion!

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“Soras are common and the most abundant rail species in North America. Although Sora populations are stable, they rely on wetland habitat that is dwindling due to urban and agricultural development. Soras migrate at night and frequently collide with lighted towers during migration, which could potentially affect the population. Sora hunting is legal in 31 states and in Manitoba and Ontario, Canada, but the popularity of hunting Sora has declined in recent years and it is unclear if hunting has any significant impacts.” – from All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sora/overview

Although many reference sources note the Sora’s ‘yellow candy-corn bill,‘ the Purple Gallinule’s brightly colored beak better resembles the candy of my childhood. I loved that colorful candy when I was young.

I once consumed the entire contents of a bag, and well remember biting off the very tip, then the middle, and finally the broadest part – one tiny candy after the next. Tucked into a cool spot of the back-yard gardens, I overdosed on those colorful candies and was violently ill – then immediately well again. My love for Candy Corn instantly evaporated!

“The Sora, especially on migration and in winter, is often satisfied with small marshes, heavily vegetated ponds, and even grassy ditches. Simply walking the edges of such areas in April or September, or in more southerly areas at any time in the winter, can turn up birds that would otherwise go undetected.” – from Bird Watcher’s Digest

Jan. 26, 2020 – the first bird appeared here. I thought it was a juvenile gallinule!

After discovering three ‘Soras on vacation‘ last January at Parque las Vegas, I soon learned that their presence was quite rare for Ecuador. Ecuador and Peru mark the southern ‘limits’ of their migratory habits, though most find accommodations in closer range.

 

(Sora Abundancy Map – image from Cornell/eBird December 2020)

eBird, a citizen-science website, continues to fine-tune its data. This past week they showcased a new option, which instantly fascinated me. Typing ‘Sora’ into the species box, I marveled while watching the ebird sightings map for this species come to life. Watch this: SORA – Abundance-map Weekly – You’ll see that few Soras select Ecuador as their winter vacation destination.

Who knows what nudges migratory birds to return to their home base. Maybe the sun’s placement in the sky plays a role. During the Covid lockdown, the guards at Parque las Vegas allowed me to check on the Soras, which remained in the park until March 21. “Buen viaje, precious Soras!” Did the March equinox trigger their departure or was it coincidence?

According to news reports, smoke from wildfires and September’s early freeze were linked to the deaths of thousands of migratory birds. Soras were on the list of casualties.  ‘Bird Die Off in Colorado  

The snowstorm caused starvation for many birds in the Southwest. See:  Audubon

See the iNaturalist site for the Southwest Avian Mortality Project.  https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/southwest-avian-mortality-project

With concern for the three darlings that visited Parque las Vegas, I hoped that they would return. When the crew of workers scalped the vegetation earlier this month, I then wondered if the Soras might stop, note the changes and potential dangers, and keep moving until finding a new vacation spot.

The park last week

I looked down and was surprised to see the Sora!

Yay! It decided to stay around, lack of cover and all!

Seeing the new ‘lone’ Sora puts joy in my heart, yet the absence of the other two presents new considerations. Were those three birds a family? Friends? Do Soras migrate in large groups and slowly divide and spread? Why do some stop in Central America while others keep moving south? Are they like people – traveling in a group and scattering depending on their whims? Maybe some are more intrepid than others; some want to know what’s around the next bend? Are they loners while on migration? Alas, there are so many questions, which make me wistful for an old-fashioned public library, crammed with reference material or the ability to request specific books!

My ultimate concern for the other two Soras left me wondering: did they die from starvation after the sudden change of weather, or had hunters claimed them for a prized meal?  Maybe they were adapting along the nearby Rio Portoviejo.  

Adult gallinule chasing a dove.

The Sora does not hide too well here.

The Sora suddenly became more alert.

From the nearby circle of hyacinths, the juvenile gallinule dashed for the Sora. The Sora was faster, however.

This lone bird tolerates my attention, yet its survival skills remain on high alert. I now realize that the Purple Gallinules represent a great risk. Last week they chased a lone blackbird that landed in the hyacinths, and they often harass the Eared Doves. Two times in the past week I’ve watched a juvenile gallinule attempting to capture the Sora. With so few places to hide, the Sora remains on the edges of the pond, but unlike the gallinules, it flies with ease. Quite small, it blends with available cover and at times – even when I watch closely – it seems invisible.

Checking several times each week, I returned on December 16, and again on the 20th. Also of interest are the Masked Water-Tyrants and their easy-to-photograph nest.

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“Before…” (March 21, 2020)

“After” —- December 2020

On December 16, the Masked Water-Tyrant nest looked different. With lack of cover in other areas of the pond, the Striated and Tri-colored Herons and a Neotropic Cormorant crowded the space. The grand-father iguanas often swim to the island and bask motionless for hours. The islita became a life raft when cattails and other options were removed. The caption on one of my photos of the water-tyrants states, “Tyrants do not seem happy today.”

The Tri-colored Heron and the Striated Heron share the back side of the islita.

‘The water-tyrants do not seem happy today.’

A Sora-check on the 20th brought a new disappointment. The Masked Water-Tyrant nest was gone. Both islitas had been scalped and new circles of water hyacinth transplants dotted the pond. The large circle of water hyacinths sported a new shape. None of the birds seemed happy, though they adapt. The Sora had migrated to a shady far corner of the pond. I avoided the center area and focused on the Sora.

Two Common Gallinules peer from the edge as if to ask, “What has happened?”

This was difficult to view…

“Before” —

“After” — The Sora migrated to a quieter section of the pond.

The Green Kingfisher and Striated Heron veered to higher perches.

“Before….” June 2020

“After…”   December 2020 – The species adapt.

I returned on the 21st to photograph the sun’s shadow at noon and hoped that one of the resident birds would provide a few candid solstice shots. Cloudy conditions prevailed, although several species  entertained me with interesting poses.  The sun made a brief fifteen-second appearance between 12:00 and 12:01, as if to acknowledge my expectations of the noon hour.

Snowy Egret – 12:01 pm

Purple Gallinule ‘fishing’ for water lily fruit. 12:01

12:05 – Back to cloudy conditions, but the Snowy Egret continues to entertain. It caught a crayfish!

12:07 – The Tri-colored Heron pirouettes while chasing minnows.

The Masked Water Tyrants, now free of their parenting duties, seemed to have dismissed their grief and resumed their normal behavior. Singing and dancing while flitting from spot to spot, they provided a great example of moving on. There were lessons here that extended far beyond my concern for the birds.

I wondered if the lone Sora felt isolated, vulnerable or if it missed its companions. I wondered where it slept at night, and if the neighborhood cats might prey on any of these birds. The ‘Sorita’ foraged within a few feet of where I sat on the earth near the edge of the pond. Totally ignoring me, it remained on alert for the gallinules. A juvenile and an adult approached the far side, and the Sora, in stealth mode, scurried in the opposite direction. Rounding the next bend, it resumed its foraging behavior, unaware that both gallinules approached.  I moved uphill for a better view of both species.

Still unaware of the gallinules’ presence, the Sora fluffed and rested in the new growth of the papyrus. Both gallinules closed the distance, and feeling the Sora was outnumbered, I tossed a few marble-sized rocks toward the gallinules.

Ker-splash!

 

The gallinules quickly switched their attention to the splash, but the Sora did not.

I tossed another, and then another and stated, ‘Danger! Danger!’

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The Sora spotted the gallinules and immediately flew to the scalped islita! Yay! Within a few seconds, the gallinules passed through the Sora’s previous hiding place, then continued along the edge of the pond. Whew.

Was I wrong to interfere?

The islita’s mass of old roots and debris offers adequate cover for small birds. Larger ones can easily soar to safety. The area will regenerate quickly. The cattails take longer to reach maturity, but the new foliage grows fast and offers cover for small birds like the Soras and Wattled Jacanas. The Green Kingfishers instantly migrated to higher tree-top perches. The birds have no ability to protest or grumble. Adapting, they learn how to find new food or nesting options. They dodge the predators.

The Masked Water-Tyrants’ cheerful behavior was by far my greatest lesson for the month.  We cannot reclaim what’s lost -so we adapt, adjust and move forward. If we’re looking back, we can’t see where we’re going.  These dancing and singing fluffs of black and white set a great example.

Beginning stages of a watercolor study.  Masked Water-Tyrants

The birds have become some of my best teachers. Nature adapts, as will I.