Virginia rails most often are described as secretive birds, and for good reason.

“They’re often heard calling and not seen,” ornithologist David Yeany explained.

And so catching sight of them is exciting for people in his field, especially considering the relative scarcity of the avian marsh dwellers in this neck of the woods: Last year, the Wingfield Pines conservation area in Upper St. Clair was home to the first confirmed breeding Virginia rails in Allegheny County.

“There’s so little of that marsh habitat remaining,” Yeany said about they type of environment the birds prefer. “They’re benefitting from the work the Allegheny Land Trust has done to create legacy wetlands at Wingfield Pines.”

Yeany, a conservation planning specialist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, regularly provides his expertise to the land trust, a nonprofit protecting more than 2,100 acres of green space in Allegheny and Washington counties.

That includes Wingfield Pines’ 87 acres.

“When we purchased it in 2001, we knew it had a lot of issues,” Emilie Rzotkiewicz, the trust’s vice president of land resources, said. “It was an old golf course that had turf grass with weeds growing through it.”

A treatment system for abandoned mine drainage highlights efforts the organization has taken since to improve the environment, some of which contributed to the formation of clean, marshy wetlands.

“That habitat was never there before,” Rzotkiewicz said. “So the fact that we kind of created that habitat, and that a bird like the Virginia rail chose Wingfield Pines to nest and breed, was a big success that we can put in our back pocket to say, ‘We’ve done a good job.’”

The property has become one of the most popular birding sites in the region, with other rarities such as the rail-related sora, along with species such as the American bittern, great white heron and black tern that stop for extended periods during migration.

Mammals also are becoming more prevalent at Wingfield Pines, with river otters among the latest to show their faces.

“It was exciting when people told me they saw those,” Rzotkiewicz reported. “There were two of them, and it was obvious that they were otters, with the play and the very joyful rolling and turning in the water.”

To keep the momentum going, the Allegheny Land Trust is in the process of raising money for a Wingfield Pines master plan.

“All of the planning that we did was really around the abandoned mine drainage system,” Rzotkiewicz said about the concentration of efforts to this point. “So the rest of the property, we’ve let grow and are trying to figure out what it’s going to become. We need specialists to come in and say, ‘This habitat is what should be here.’”

Non-specialists can get involved, too.

“If people are interested in helping with the habitat management, we’re looking for volunteers,” she said. “We’re looking for groups of individuals who can help us maintain certain areas for a certain type of bird habitat. We’ll need more volunteers especially after the management plan is complete to implement the recommendations.”

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