RAIL – roaded; just lucky

Please consider the images to be copyrighted and ask permission to reuse any of them. Thank you. DEClapp

The spring is bird migration time – hence all the bird-related blogs. The peak is May with a bit of April and June thrown in. So I’ve been posting a good bit of bird stuff – some day, perhaps next week even, I will get back and finish the Falkland Islands posts and start in on more Australia and Africa. But for now there are a few relevant bird posts to finish; the always entertaining sparrows will be stunning I’m sure, the elegant array of terns might be more colorful or at least a bit more jazzy, and today will shine some light on the denizens of our wetlands, thick with emergent vegetation. These birds slither and skulk, They are noisy but but not songsters. Most people go an entire lifetime without seeing any of them.

Let’s take a look at the rails; king, clapper, Virginia, sora, and yellow (in descending size). They are shy and secretive as a rule but it may be that the vegetation they live in is not at all transparent. They can be just a few feet away from you and fully out of sight. The phrase “skinny as a rail” originated back when wildlife was an essential part of everyones daily life. People in the bush noticed that rails could squeeze between things by becoming narrowing in width. They became “skinny as a rail” to squeeze through their habitat.

They are all possible here in Massachusetts but the Yellow Rail (YERA) is very hard to find and identify though it is a regular passage bird. They mostly nest in Canada and winter in the wetlands (stopping in old rice fields along the way) of the Gulf Coast. The Virginia Rail (VIRA) is the most common of our rails and along with the Sora (SORA) is the most widespread. The larger rails are the Clapper and the King. This group is found worldwide and is one of the birds that often become flightless over time when they get to a predator-free island. But they are often wiped out quickly when humans, dogs, cats, weasels, stoats, and rats arrive on the island. There are still flightless rails on a few Islands and in New Zealand as well.

The other day Fran and I were out walking and I stepped into a small slot cut into the vegetation along the edge a large marsh. The slot had been cut by the Massachusetts Mosquito Control people in order to access mosquito traps that they use to look for insects carrying troublesome illnesses. I was only ten to fifteen feet off the trail and trying to stay dry when I noticed motion near my feet. It was this Virginia Rail. I took about 20 photos but the bird was too close for most of them to be in focus. I did get a few that are pretty good. The banner image at the head of this post is the same bird in a different spot. Mostly dumb luck – but you had to be standing in a swamp to be treated to this good luck. The Virginia Rail (VIRA) is widespread and mostly in freshwater wetlands. This bird was in the fresh edge of what probably is a lightly brackish swamp though fed by ground water in the dunes. The longish bill is a characteristic of many rails, but the gray face and smallish size separate this from the King Rail (KIRA) which is similar.
This little rail is a Yellow Rail (YERA). This is an uncommon bird in my area. It probably migrates through here, both north and south, annually but is a very secretive and short term resident in the coastal grasses. It breeds widely across southern Canada and winters along the southeastern coast of the US. One autumn after the rails had migrated to the south Fran and I went to western Louisiana to the Rails and Rice Festival. This is an annual event that allows birdwatchers to see these hard -to-see birds up close. A few of the rice farmers cooperate by harvesting their rice fields during the festival. The harvesting combines are huge, noisy, and rugged machines. They charge over the landscape cutting the seed heads from the grass (rice) and process it somewhat and then catch the rice kernels in a giant hopper all the while kicking up a tornado of dust. They start cutting on the outer edge of the field and circle around inward and inward again. Pretty soon the spiral leaves only a small section of uncut grain in the center of the patch. There are a few birders up on the combine wearing masks for the dust, others walking the field with cameras, and some in 4×4 carts driving just outside the cutting wheels. The rails soon pop out from the remaining area and they often just fly a few feet and drop down. They are easy to see and the bird banders that are set up in the field catch and band quite a few, sometimes using a butterfly net. Yellow Rail is the target bird in the rice fields, but there are also Virginia, King, Clapper, and Sora. It is quite an outing.
The small bird in the center of this image has a short bill, like the Yellow Rail, But its black face, the yellow bill, and small size mark it as as a Sora (SORA). They have a whinny like call and whistled notes as well. The alarm call is strong for such a small bird. Like all rails they walk unnoticed through the reeds; but if one were to fly up in front of you, you would see a white rear edge to the wing feathers and a longish pointy tail – on a smallish bird that just surprised you. This is also a very common rail and widespread across North America and Mexico. It is just hard to see and (remember) you need to be out at night near a wetland to hear it calling.
This Clapper Rail is pretty uniformly gray in color. It is restricted for the most part to coastal marshes in the eastern part of the US, though there is a west coast population – which may actually be closer to King Rail than Clapper. This rail is about 14.5 inches long (compare to a Mourning Dove at 12″). It is a salt marsh bird and again, widespread but not often seen – the mantra pretty much for all rails I guess. The male is very very similar to the female King Rail and the two species (?) can and do hybridize. Our birds here in the northeast are pretty gray but as you move south you see them becoming more and more reddish. The Gulf Coast population is very much like the King Rail.
This image of a female King Rail scooting across a wetland (actually a pond edge) doesn’t show much reddish color. The King Rail is large, like the Clapper, and this image doesn’t do justice to the streaks and striping of the back and tail. The populations that look alike (between Clapper and King) can be identified often by the contrast and intensity of these marks. A male Clapper, especially in the Carolinas and south, will look much like this bird. I know this to be a female because she was nesting in this area and was the adult bird in the next image.
The female is the bird to the left in the image. The other bird is a youngster still flightless but able to get around the wetlands with ease. Both the Clapper and the King make kek kek noises that are diagnostic after listening and thinking for a while. The King Rail is generally a bird of freshwater wetlands.

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