Yesterday, I arranged to meet my dad at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge for some birding. While I was waiting for dad to show up, I walked out the trail over the low dike that separates the two impoundments. Because of the late flooding this year, many of the cattails are still quite short, less than four feet tall. I was looking at some of the short cattails when I heard a familiar sound, a loud abrupt “kick-it, kick-it.” It was a Virginia Rail hiding somewhere in the cattails not far from the trail. Then another one started calling on the other side of the trail.

I stopped to listen, when suddenly one of the rails walked right up on the dike about fifty feet away, looked at me, and scuttled back into the cattails. Virginia Rails are small secretive birds and they can be hard to see, but every once in a while one will pop out into the open and let you have a look at it. I was thinking how lucky I was to see a Virginia Rail in the middle of the afternoon, when I realized the other Virginia Rail I had heard calling was coming out into the open practically at my feet.

As it moved closer and closer, I trained my binoculars on it. They’re odd-looking birds: drab brown, strangely thin from side to side so they can slip through the cattails, somewhat elongated, legs placed well back on their bodies, with very long toes. But when you look closely you realize they’re quite beautiful: their reddish-orange down-curved bill contrasts well with their gray cheeks and warm brown bodies. This particular rail got so close I could see individual feathers through the binoculars, and I could make out a neat subtle pattern on its back and wings. It fluffed up its feathers, uttered a loud “kak!”, turned and kept walking towards me.

The rail got so close I could not focus the binoculars on it. I looked down at it, not six feet away, moving across the trail and out in the open now but still moving furtively: a small brown bird, a fellow living thing, looking up at me. It moved quickly across the trail, and lost itself in the weeds and cattails.

“Wow,” I said out loud, to no one in particular, for there were no other human beings in sight. I felt a little light-headed: I had just been amazingly close to an amazing animal. The light-headedness lasted for a good half hour.