SCBWF January 24, 2014: Hearing Black Rails at St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve already posted some photographs from the Black Rail field trip last week, but I wanted to blog about it in more detail.

In order to maximize our chances at identifying Black Rails, the trip was set to begin just before dusk and last through sunset. This, plus the open space and cold air aloft (it had warmed a bit on the ground through the afternoon) set up a the conditions for the brilliant sun pillar many of us photographed. Here’s another shot of it, in case you missed it.

 photo sun-pillar.jpg
Sun pillar.

We took a hayride out to the area we would most likely encounter the rails. This was my first hayride since I was a teen.

My experience with this field trip brought up an interesting point. As far as “official” birding goes – that is marking whether or not you’ve “got” a particular bird or not for a list – it is perfectly legitimate to count birds that are identified by voice only.

When I first started birding and getting familiar with bird songs and calls, I kept separate lists. One for birds I definitely ID’ed by eye and one for those I only ID’ed by voice. In my mind’s eye, though, I only wanted to “officially” count birds I had seen. “Ear only” birds were meant to be temporary or curiosities.

I’ve come to learn that many birders do not separate their “eye” and “ear” identifications, and there is sound logic behind this.

For some secretive birds, like rails, you might never see one, but the birds’ calls and settings are so specific that the voice alone positively identifies it. As far as groups like the ABA are concerned, any method by which you can definitively identify the bird counts. Naturally, we’d all LOVE to see every bird we hear or encounter, but that’s not always possible nor necessary to “count” it for a list (whether it’s a day list, a Big Year, a life list, etc.).

Having said that, I also realize that some birders, especially those with a lot of experience and very long life lists like to challenge themselves and start making their criteria for “getting” a bird more and more challenging.

That gets to the heart of the matter for me. No matter how you choose to count your birds, the most important thing, I believe, is to have fun and be challenged. After all, why else are we out there in freezing temperatures for hours on end just to catch a glimpse or a call? I spent over 12 hours on a boat, 40 miles out to sea, just to catch a glimpse of a shearwater or a jaeger. Maybe even the momentary flash of a phalarope head against the dark sea. And even seeing just ONE of those would be worth it to me.

We did hear the Black Rails call at sunset. It was perhaps made all the more sweet in that the first call was heard before our trip leader played a call on his smart phone. Those brief squeaky calls together with a brilliant sunset made everything worth it.

Here is my species list (16 – short and sweet):

  • Northern Harrier
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Tree Swallow
  • American Robin
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Black Rail
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White Ibis
  • Anhinga
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Gray Catbird

Please note that my lists might differ from the shared eBird lists as my personal criteria for ID tends to be more on the strict side, and I may not have seen every bird that the entire group reported.

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