Rallus limicola limicola

Status:  Uncommon regular spring and fall migrant east and west, common central. Uncommon, locally common, regular breeder north and west, rare south and east. Uncommon local regular winter visitor west and central.

Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM6100, 14 Jun 1902 Marsh Lake, Cherry Co.

Taxonomy: Traditionally four subspecies, but two South American subspecies recently split as Ecuadorian Rail (Gill and Donsker 2017). Subspecies retained in Virginia Rail are limicola of southern Canada and the United States, and friedmanni of south-central and southeast Mexico.

Nebraska birds are limicola.

Spring:  Apr 6, 6, 8 <<<>>> summer

Arrival of migrants is expected in mid-Apr, with a peak late Apr-early May. Reports in Mar are from areas where wintering may have occurred (see Winter). Determination late dates for spring migration is difficult due to possible breeding birds; May and Jun dates are suggestive of breeding.

  • High counts: 14 at Wood Duck WMA, Stanton Co 3 May 2020, 8 at Lincoln Saline Wetlands Nature Park, Lancaster Co 3 May 2019, and 7 at Clear Creek WMA, Keith and Garden Cos 23 Apr 1977 (Rosche 1994).

Summer:  Breeding is generally confined to the state’s major wetland complexes; highest breeding densities occur in the Sandhills.  Dinan et al (2018) estimated 99,582 (95% C.I.; 80,447, 123,269) individuals present in Sandhills wetlands during the breeding season.

Even though it may be an expected breeder in the Rainwater Basin, breeding records are surprisingly few (Jorgensen 2012); in surveys conducted in 2015 (Jorgensen 2016), breeding of several marsh birds was noted, but no Virginia Rails were found. The three confirmed Rainwater Basin breeding records are of two adults and four young at Funk WPA, Phelps Co 4 Jul 1998, an adult with three chicks at Waco WPA, Seward Co 12 Jul 2007, and adults with downy young at Tamora WPA, Seward Co 30 Aug-7 Sep 2008. There are several additional nesting season reports in the Rainwater Basin.  As well as the breeding record cited above for Funk WPA, there are reports there 17-19 May and 30 Jun 1996, 19 Jul 2003, 9 Jul 1995, and 30 Jul 2000. Elsewhere, reports are concentrated in the vicinity of Waco, York Co: 15 Jun 2014 Spikerush WMA, 20 Jun 2005 Waco WPA, 5 Jul 2003 Sinninger WPA, and 19 Jul 2003 Heron WPA (Jorgensen 2012).  Dinan et al (2018) detected only twelve individuals in the Rainwater Basin during call broadcast surveys of secretive marsh birds (rails, bitterns) in 2016-17.

There are a few breeding records in the east: 1972 and 1984 in Lancaster Co (Ducey 1988; Cink 1975), 1982 in Douglas Co (Bennett 1983), and a nest with eggs in 1995 at Jack Sinn WMA, Lancaster Co (Joseph Gubanyi, personal communication), and a chick photographed east of Creighton, Knox Co 26 Aug 2018. In addition, there are several nesting season reports in the east: three on 6 Jun 1998 Crystal Cove Lake, Dakota Co, Jun-Jul 1968 and 6 Jul 1984 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 2 Jun 1999, 14 Jun 1983, 1-20 Jul 1970, and 23 Jul 1988 Lancaster Co, 8-9 Jun 2005 Stanton Co, 19 Jun 2008 Thurston Co, and 20 Jun 1987 Pierce Co.  The only site where Dinan et al (2018) detected the species in 2016-17 in the eastern saline wetlands of northern Lancaster and southern Saunders counties was Little Salt Fork Marsh, Lancaster Co, the same location where Dinan and Jorgensen (2015) detected the species in 2013.

There are only two summer reports from the Panhandle south of Sioux Co, 17 Jun 1980 and 11 Jul 1985 in Scotts Bluff Co. In the southwest there are reports from Dundy Co 2-12 Jun in 1992-2005, 2 Jun 1992 Chase Co, 2 Jun 2003 at Hayes Center WMA, Hayes Co, and 17 Jul 2003 near Brady, Lincoln Co. There is an observation of an adult with downy young just west of Sutherland Reservoir in Lincoln Co 9 Aug 1987.

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Eggs: 15 May-24 Jun
    Fledglings: 30 May-29 Aug

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Oct 12, 13, 13

It is difficult to determine early fall migration dates due to summering birds. Dispersal may begin in Jul and early Aug; dispersal of radio-tracked adults away from breeding locations occurred 19 Jul-1 Aug in Iowa (Johnson and Dinsmore 1985).  Juveniles at different sites in Lancaster Co 30 Jul 2016 and 31 Jul 2016 may have been migrants, as may have been one in Dakota Co 24 Jul 2019. Five and four responding from two areas of cattails in Keith Co 6 Aug 2017 may have been local family groups or migrants.

Last dates above correspond with a drop off in fall records; most leave by late Sep, as there are few Oct reports and later birds are presumably attempting to winter (see Winter). Later reports are mostly along the North Platte River Valley, but elsewhere there are these that may be late migrants: 14-15 Oct 2009 Dawes Co, 19 Oct 2020 two Kimball Co, 20 Oct-7 Nov 2005 Lincoln Co, 23 Oct 1982 Hamilton Co, 24 Oct 2013 Douglas Co, 26 Oct 2004 Dundy Co, and 27 Oct 2013 Lancaster Co. One photographed wandering around downtown Wahoo, Saunders Co streets 7 Nov 2019 was probably forced out as its habitat froze.

It is difficult to assess fall arrival and peak migration timing. That large numbers may stage at times is indicated by a post-breeding estimate of 5000 in Aug 1977 at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co that “boggles the mind” (Williams 1978).

WinterIn recent years, it has become clear that this species winters regularly in the North Platte River Valley and the central Niobrara River Valley. There are multiple reports from Kiowa WMA, Scotts Bluff Co, Chet and Jane Fleisbach WMA, Morrill Co, Clear Creek WMA, Lewellen in southeast Garden Co, and Lake McConaughy, Keith Co. In winter 2004-2005 a search along the Niobrara River located about four single birds at four locations in Cherry Co from Merriman east to NNF McKelvie, Cherry Co; two were found in the same area 10 Jan 2006 (Ducey 2007) and one was heard at Valentine NWR, Cherry Co 9 Mar 2020. It probably winters at Hiatt Wetlands, Lincoln Co; 1-2 were there 22-23 Jan for the 3rd consecutive year at the site.

Additional records from areas where wintering might occur are: 2 Nov 2020 Enders Reservoir, Chase Co, 6 Nov 2009 Dundy Co, 24 Nov and 23-24 Dec 2020 Nuckolls Co, 1 Dec 1996 Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co, Chester Island WMA, Lincoln Co, 14 Dec 2003, Boone Co CBC 19 Dec 1997, Funk WPA, Phelps Co 5 Mar 2000, two on 18 Mar 2018 on Blue Creek, Garden Co, seven at Garden County Wildlife Refuge, Garden Co 23 Mar 2020, and singles 23 Mar 2019 Kimball Co, 24 Mar 1992 Sioux Co, 28 Mar 2015 Lewellen, Garden Co, and 30 Mar 2011 Wind Springs Ranch, Sioux Co.

  • High counts:  16 at Facus Springs 10 Jan 1999, 10 near Lewellen 22 Feb 1998, 9 at Clear Creek WMA 5 Feb 2000, and 7 at Garden County Wildlife Refuge, Garden Co 23 Mar 2020.


CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NNF: Nebraska National Forest
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum


Photograph (top) of a Virginia Rail  at North Platte, Lincoln Co 18 Feb 2018 by Boni Edwards.

Literature Cited

Bennett, E.V. 1983. 1982 Nebraska nesting survey. NBR 51: 26-32.

Cink, C.L. 1971. Some interesting summer bird records for Lancaster County in 1970. NBR 39: 58-59.

Dinan, L.R., M. Bomberger Brown and J.G. Jorgensen.  2018.  2016-2017 Secretive marshbird abundance,  distribution and habitat use in Nebraska.  Joint report of the Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Dinan, L.R., & J.G. Jorgensen.  2014.  2013 Secretive Marshbird Survey of Nebraska’s Eastern Saline Wetlands.  Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Ducey, J.E. 2007.  Water Habitats a Refugium for Winter Birds Along the Central Niobrara River.  Wildbirds Broadcasting blog, accessed 20 February 2018.

Johnson, R. R. and J. J. Dinsmore. 1985. Brood-rearing and postbreeding habitat use by Virginia Rails and Soras. Wilson Bulletin 97: 551-554.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2016.  A summary of 2015 breeding bird surveys of selected Rainwater Basin wetlands.  Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Williams, F. 1978. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 32: 223-227.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola limicola). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 14 Mar 2021