Sora (空) is the Japanese word for sky. It is also the character that means nothingness, emptiness.
Sora is also the English word for nothing, or empty, like the status of my camera's memory card ninety-nine times out of a hundred when I'm trying to catch a glimpse of and photograph this elusive marsh bird.
If you are walking along the edge of a marshy area and you flush a small brownish bird that looks like an upside-down 60-watt light bulb trying to fly, you've probably seen a Sora. Once it disappears into the bullrushes, forget about ever seeing it again. You'll see the rushes move to your left, and then to your right, and after countless blurry photos of mud and reeds, you'll know that you've been had by this sleuth of the wetlands.
It is more likely that you will hear a Sora than see one. Its demeanor is as diminutive as a mouse, but its voice is as big as the sky. Its loud call starts with a quick squeal, followed immediately by a series of short squeals descending in tone. It reminds me of the alternator belt on the 1959 Ford Fairlane that I drove in college, when I started it on cold mornings. It's very loud, and often it erupts without warning from the immediate vicinity. On a recent visit to a local marsh, a birding expert reported hearing fifteen Soras; he was able to catch a glimpse of only one of them.
Ironically, it's when you're not looking for a Sora that one will show itself right out in the open, strutting like a fashion model on the runway. Its long toes allow it to walk right across the top of lily pads and other marsh vegetation. It moves slowly--most of the time--like a tiny chicken, reaching down to peck at seeds, snails and insects on the water's surface. With a yellow beak that looks like candy corn, and a bright white stubby tail that usually points straight up, you can't help but wonder why this bird is so hard to find. But then it will suddenly scamper back into the reeds, and you will understand. Nothing again.
Soras migrate to Central and South America (Yes, that flying light bulb can make it non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico!), and they are on their way back north now, passing through the Chicago area in good numbers. Some stay and nest here. For the next several months, any time you are near a marsh, listen for the Sora's distinctive call. If you are lucky, you may even see one. But if not, that's OK. Be satisfied with an earful of "nothing."
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.