Going off the Rails

There is a bird of almost mythical secrecy. A tiny creature that scurries like a mouse through dense marsh grasses. It makes the other members of its famously-shy family seem downright extroverted, and it’s small enough to be mistaken for their young. Its distinctive song is typically sung in the dead of night, and it growls at intruders who enter its territory. It seldom shows itself willingly, hiding away from predators as it forages in the darkness. The bird has the appearance of a sparrow’s shadow, a chick dunked in soot. A closer look reveals fiery red eyes, a chestnut-dusted nape, and an intricate pattern of white spots strewn across its back. This bird is the Black Rail, and it is a fine prize for any naturalist up for the challenge of tracking it down.

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As a birder, I know these things. I know of the rail and its legendary status as a difficult target. This is high-quality quarry. Reports of a Black Rail discovered during the 2015 World Series of Birding prompted many teams to change their plans and make chase, even at the end of 24 non-stop hours of competition. I know this species is mysterious and poorly understood, and it is believed to be declining in many parts of its range. These birds used to be found in the marshes of Long Island, but they have all but disappeared from my home state. What I didn’t know is that Black Rails, year-round residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, have been encountered semi-reliably at a marina just 15 minutes from Dylan’s house.

I was continuing through my vacation blissfully unaware of my proximity to the phantom birds, enjoying all that the Golden State has to offer. Dylan, Aly, and I made a trip up to Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley for some long overdue wine tasting. We started off at a lovely winery where Dylan has a membership and made the rounds to a handful of other vineyards throughout the day. It was nice to take a break from the wild dashing around and just kick back for a while. Partaking in the variety of wines with good friends was a great use of one of my last full days in California.

I searched eBird for some other hotspots in the area to see if there were any easy lifers or year birds to be had. I was absentmindedly clicking through recent observations when the words “Black Rail” jumped out at me. Oh? They live here? Someone had them 2 nights ago?! The excitement of the potential hunt began to take hold again, and the plans were set in motion. The following day we returned to Mountain View, ran some errands, and went for a stroll down a creekside trail in town. I discovered a large congregation of Violet-green Swallows foraging over the channel, and a few White-throated Swifts put in an appearance as well. All in all, a fun, casual day.

As the sun sank closer to the horizon, we geared up and headed over to Alviso Marina County Park. Rails are typically more active in the morning or evening, and I hoped that the birds would be waking up for the night by the time that I arrived. The circumstances were less than ideal, with persistent winds and noisy parkgoers making it hard to hear wildlife. As I traipsed about the boardwalk, a faint growling noise reached my ears. I froze, paused to listen, and was rewarded by a clear “kee-kee-drr” emanating from the dense reeds. I attempted to record the vocalizations, but the wind was far too loud. While I filmed, a sudden call grabbed my attention as the Black Rail burst forth from cover. It fluttered across some matted-down grass as I fumbled with my camera, providing me with uncharacteristically acceptable views. I managed to nab a rough but identifiable picture of the tiny skulker as it quickly retreated to the shadows.

Dylan and Aly also got to listen to the adorable song of the rail, an experience that many seasoned birders would die to be a part of. A second individual responded, and the two birds began countersinging to each other for several minutes. I could also hear faint peeping sounds, seemingly with multiple sources, coming from the immediate vicinity of one singer. Black Rails were documented breeding in the Alviso Marina marsh last year, and although I could not find recordings of chicks to compare with it’s possible that they were again successful in their nesting efforts. I got one last look at my newest lifer when a rail crossed a mat of vegetation, briskly strolling over the stems and ducking into a tunnel among the grasses. As the light of day faded, we bid farewell to the birds and headed back to town. Another successful outing, and a target that absolutely lived up to the hype.

Year List Update, August 8 – 382 Species (+ Violet-green Swallow, White-throated Swift, Black Rail)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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3 Responses to Going off the Rails

  1. Pingback: Count On It | Studying Life

  2. Pingback: 2016 Achievement Awards | Studying Life

  3. Pingback: 2016 Top 10 Lifers | Studying Life

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