Let’s Hear it for Rails!

This past weekend’s adventure was all about the rails! After some good tips from both eBird and some local birders, Camille and I headed north to Spruce Creek Park for Clapper Rails. A few leads said that they were easily observed and calling loudly throughout the park.

The park is over 1,600 acres in size and has a boardwalk overlooking the marshes and mudflats of Spruce Creek. There are also a few miles of hiking trails, but since the focus of the trip was rails, we didn’t really hike them.

spruce-creek3

As soon as we stepped on the boardwalk we could hear Clapper Rails calling from all around the marsh, but we couldn’t see them. Other wading birds were working the perimeter of the mudflats (which were mostly underwater), including a Yellow-crowned Night Heron (my first of the year, finally).

yellow-crowned-nh

Several Ospreys were soaring overhead, occasionally making a dive for fish, but more often chasing each other around the sky. I assumed they were young birds still associating with their parents.

The marsh is beautiful and the stretch of water the boardwalk and pavilions overlook is expansive.

spruce-creek2

After waiting about 20 minutes or more, and continuing to hear the “kek-kek-kek-kek!” of Clapper Rails around, its was discouraging. But finally, I caught a glimpse of several gray bird shapes across the water cautiously emerge from the vegetation to the water’s edge. Just at the edge of my binoculars and camera range, I made out the characteristic rail shape.

rail-with-chicks
Part of the rail family before heading back to the safety of the vegetation. These chicks look nearly adult sized.

There seemed to be two adults and several chicks. The adults’ gray plumage matched the mud almost perfectly, while the chicks were still sporting many black and dark gray feathers. The birds stayed in a group and wandered a bit along the vegetation before one by one, slipping back into the marsh.

After scanning the marsh another time, I saw a single rail even further away, but well into the open and in full sunlight. It ducked back out of sight after just a few minutes.

I figured that would be it, but Camille and I were excited to have finally seen rails! We began to slowly work our way back from the boardwalk to the parking area, but a bit of movement caught Camille’s eye as she saw something rail-like briefly fly above the vegetation before dropping down. We watched the spot where it disappeared for a minute before continuing on our way. Then a Clapper Rail walked right out in the open just below the boardwalk! It walked briskly away from me before running back under cover.

thin-as-a-rail

This was quite an unexpected treat. You can see from the laterally flattened body where the term “thin as a rail” comes from. Like bitterns, rails are exquisitely adapted to walking and running through reeds and other marsh vegetation, only very rarely flying in the open.

After a few more steps, I glanced over the other side of the boardwalk and another rail came out into the open, this one with a single chick following it! It paid us very little mind before making its way back into the marsh, followed by its chick.

clapper-rail1

rail-chick
The adult rail had only one chick following it. I don’t know if that means only one survived or hatched, or if more chicks were with the other parent.

Another bird I have not seen (at least not this year so far) is the American Oystercatcher. Recent sightings in Volusia county, not far from Spruce Creek Preserve, gave me some hope to see them. But after stops at the Port Orange Causeway Park and Seabird Island, no oystercatchers were in sight.

We did see a large number of Brown Pelicans (approximately 200 adults and nearly fledged chicks) as well as Double-crested Cormorants and a few egrets on a small island and sandbar near Seabird Island.

The last place we searched for American Oystercatchers was the Ponce Preserve. The eastern portion of the park is mostly vegetated sand dunes while the western portion (closest to the Halifax River) is a tidal marsh and mudflat habitat similar to Spruce Creek. Indeed, we heard more Clapper Rails (including one right below my feet under the boardwalk).

That about wrapped up the morning, except one mystery. While we were exiting the dune portion of the Preserve and again later while on the boardwalk on the marsh, I heard a distinct, high-pitched, two-toned whistle that sounded exactly like a Mississippi Kite. I sort of joked about it to Camille, but then as we approached the end of the boardwalk, there was a very raptor-like silhouette on a small snag to our left. Perhaps it was that call plus the odd way the bird was perched, but we both really thought it was a small gray raptor. Each of us took a long series of photographs, but the bird was just far enough away to make it hard to know what we were looking at, even in binoculars. Upon closer review on my camera, it became embarrassingly apparent that it was merely a Mourning Dove, but that left the mystery call unresolved. As we were walking back along the boardwalk a small raptor did appear, this time soaring in quick circles, just after another two-tone whilstling call. I got a pretty decent look at the bird, and Camille got two slightly blurred photographs, but I can not make heads or tails out of what I saw. The most likely candidate would seem to be an immature Cooper’s Hawk; however, the mystery kite-like call and some aspects of this birds plumage have me wondering (Cooper’s Hawk calls sound much different than a kite). I’m going to take a closer look at the photographs and compare some other resources to see if anything definite can be determined.

But this is part of the fun and challenge of birding. You can’t always identify every bird you see or hear, and often the birds either refuse to cooperate in terms of posture or lighting, or they can look like a totally different bird. Since they have wings, species can be found far from where you’d expect (as Laura Erickson says, birds are functionally illiterate. They can’t read the field guides to know where they are supposed to be).

Here are the links to my eBird lists and identified species:

Spruce Creek Park:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24001858

  • Mottled Duck
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Yellow-crowned Night-heron (FOY)
  • White Ibis
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Osprey
  • Clapper Rail (life)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Pine Warbler (♫)
  • Red-winged Blackbird

Port Orange Causeway Park:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24001857

  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Brown Pelican
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Osprey
  • Laughing Gull
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Mourning Dove
  • Fish Crow
  • European Starling
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

Ponce Preserve:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24001856

  • Brown Pelican
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Black Vulture
  • Clapper Rail (♫)
  • Chimney Swift
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird

2 thoughts on “Let’s Hear it for Rails!

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