The weak winter sun illuminated the reeds on the far side of the shallow pond. The shaded mud flat in the background, though, was what holds my attention.

There's a bird there, but I couldn't make out any details. Feeding with its head down, it ever so slowly emerged into view before slipping behind the plants, and then briefly coming into view again. My mind flipped though the possibilities: a coot or maybe a moorhen?

Just then a group of tourists with energetic youngsters came around the corner, and the bird disappeared into the thick vegetation. At least it didn't flush.

I encouraged my birding companions to wait until the family moved along and pointed out the spot where I saw the elusive bird. Our patience was rewarded minutes later as a sora (Porzana carolina) emerged from the wetland shrubs and shadows into the pale light of the exceptionally warm winter day.

The sora is a squat, chickenlike marsh bird. Weighing 3 ounces, it is slightly smaller than a robin, with a stubby, triangular yellow beak set off with a black face patch that extends down the bird's breast. The black on its chest is edged in gray. The bird cocks its short tail up, revealing a white patch underneath. The rest of the sora is a nondescript combination of browns and blacks.

The sexes look alike, so I don't know if the bird we watched was a male or female.

The sora is part of the rail family (Rallidae). They are notoriously secretive, although the sora is less clandestine than its seldom seen cousins, the yellow and black rails. Even so, the sora is much more often heard than seen. It has a high-pitched, descending call that is often described as a whinny. Because the birds spend most of their lives in dense marsh vegetation, biologists theorize that soras' loud vocalizations are a way to establish territory in a habitat that allows few visual clues.

During the breeding season, the birds can be found across Canada, the northern half of the United States, and down through the intermountain west.

Soras construct a nest of dense vegetation along freshwater marshes. This location means the chance of flooding from heavy rains is always high. To help mitigate the risk, soras have large broods. The female lays eight to 11 eggs, one every day or so.

Because of brood size, older siblings can be far advanced by the time the last chick hatches. The chicks hatch after about two and a half weeks and can feed themselves from the first day after birth. They are ready for short trips away from the nest just a day after hatching.

In the fall, soras migrate south, using the Chesapeake as one of their first rest stops. Although they prefer fresh water during the summer, these rails visit coastal marshes every winter. In the East, soras are found from the Carolinas south to the Gulf states.

We, too, have temporarily migrated south, to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The waters here are a mix of fresh and brackish, just like the Chesapeake. The sora's winter habitat extends west from here all the way to southern California and down to northern South America.

Soras eat seeds and aquatic invertebrates, pecking through the reeds and mire. Wild rice is a favorite food.

It can live for years before falling victim to a bobcat, fox or some accident. Perhaps a hunter will bag the bird.

My companions and I had a great view of the constantly moving sora before it slipped between some reeds, disappearing for good into the safety of the grasses.

It was late afternoon, and the sun was already setting on what was one of the shortest days of the year. Our glimpse of the secretive bird lasted just a few minutes.

With luck, this sora will live a few more years. Our own lives are measured in speeding decades. Time passes so quickly, I reflect, as another year recedes into the past.

In the weak glow of the winter's sun, I found myself wanting no more than this: to spend a few minutes in the vital heart of the natural world and to share this fleeting time with special people in my life.

We are caught in the ebb-tide of time. But for the moment, I was happy to have captured this sweet moment before the light finally faded.