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A Grim Mystery

A few days ago, a grim ornithological mystery came across my computer screen. A photo of a chunky, yellowish bird found dead in the wrack line at Hardings Beach in Chatham. It was originally sent to Mike O’Connor at Birdwatcher’s General Store in Orleans, who identified it as one of the most sought-after and hardest to see birds in North America, a Yellow Rail. And how exactly it ended up on that beach is anyone’s guess. But that’s not that much of a mystery – it was in a marsh somewhere nearby and didn’t survive the winter, eventually washing out with the tide. The real mystery is, well, pretty much everything else about Yellow Rails.

The Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology has a number of Massachusetts specimens, mostly collected by 19th and early 20th century shotgun ornithologists. But the number of modern records is so small that I can mostly recall the places, names, and vague time periods without much digging – Marshfield, Nantucket, the Neponset River marshes, a couple from Fort Hill in Eastham. Most birders fantasize about scaring one up as we walk a marsh edge in fall or winter, the sight of that dumpy shape with the dangling legs and characteristic rectangular white panels in the extended wings, right before it drops into the grass and disappears again. A photo of this Holy Rail of marsh birding seems too much to hope for, but a lucky few have succeeded.

The Yellow Rail defines “secretive." Ornithologist Alexander Sprunt said of the species that “It slips silently through the grasses like a phantom, barely keeping out of the way of one's feet," also noting that it could be a few inches away and you still wouldn’t see it. Furtive is not a strong enough word – they are obstinate about revealing themselves, at least outside breeding season.  But even then, while many marsh birds at least have distinctive vocalizations to give us a fighting chance of finding them, the Yellow Rail’s mostly nocturnal breeding call wouldn’t hit most ears as something of bird origin. It sounds like the click track from a salsa tune played with two rocks. Just try to keep your hips quiet when you hear that syncopated song.

Yellow Rails breed sparsely across a wide swath of the Canadian prairie provinces, dipping down a bit into the northern tier states from North Dakota to Michigan. What constitutes good breeding habitat is still poorly known, but generally it’s grassy areas flooded less than ankle deep. Breeding sites are widely scattered, making them seem like picky habitat specialists, but they’re also willing to breed in a damp, cut-over hay field. Go figure.

In late summer and fall, they slip quietly south though the center of the continent to winter in fields and marshes along the Gulf Coast. The rice growing region of Louisiana has become the standard place for birders and researchers alike to find Yellow Rails – some areas hold Rice and Rail festivals where birders actually wait for the rails to be flushed by the rice harvesting combines. It may seem odd, but collaborating with farmers, who manage most of the land in the middle of this country, can only help bird conservation.

Thus ends another obscure species profile – I hope you hung in there. We’ve established that Yellow Rails breed in places you don’t go, move like a mouse through dense grass, sound like an insect, and you probably won’t ever see one this side of a Louisiana rice harvest. I should probably stick to the things people really want to hear about, like eagles and bluebirds and puffins, but I can’t resist the rare, little known, and elusive critters out there. In case you were wondering, I’ve never seen one. Until I do, that clicking call and plump little shape will ever haunt the marshes of my birding dreams.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.