Birders are nothing if not creatures of habit. We all have our spots and rely on them for X, Y and Z species every year. From the many emails I get from Missouri birders every year, it’s clear that very few people have a ‘rail spot’ and they all sound a bit exasperated trying to find one. They wished rails would be reliable, would show up in the same place every year, the same unit. They complain to me about wetland management, too. ‘All these managers keep ruining the wetland’.
What most people overlook is a key aspect of rails which plays right into the management of their wetland habitat. So first a little bit of Wetland Management 101.
Most freshwater wetlands in the Lower 48 are impounded. This means that the wetland has been cut off from it’s normal hydrology and is being managed in some way. These impoundments are surrounded by levees or dikes and have water control structures that allow the manager of the property to add and release water as necessary.
On most state and federal properties this is done in such a way to mimic natural water regimes, the floods of spring, a drier summer and then flooding again in the fall. This produces a certain plant community and structure that will vary across geography but is often well suited to supporting migrating birds. This kind of management was developed by Leigh Fredrickson in southeastern Missouri. Moist soil management is part art and part science because no year is the same as the last, temperature and precipitation can cause all kinds of changes and promote different plant species. Cocklebur likes it really hot for instance, but if you flush it with water when it’s young it often dies back.
But managing these wetlands is about more than just setting water levels. These wetlands also have to be disturbed. This disturbance can take many forms, from discing to burning to mowing and applying herbicides and many other methods. This may seem really invasive in the short term but this is again mimicking natural processes. Large scale floods and fires would have altered wetland landscapes on a regular basis before humans started to influence the landscape. Disturbing the wetlands lets us set them back in time, returning the wetlands to these early successional systems.
Succession is the process of a habitat moving from one place to another. These are often seen in a linear way with a ’time 0 state’ where it’s just bare earth and then it goes along a certain path depending on the soil, climate, rainfall, etc. For instance, a bare ground area with some hydric soil will slowly develop annual vegetation and after a few years buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) or other shrubby woody plants will begin to grow in. The annual plants will die and build up and over time the wetland will go from being a moist soil wetland with smartweeds (polygonum spp) and millet (echinochloa spp) to shrub, and if it’s not disturbed it will eventually reach it’s final stage as a hardwood bottomland swamp. All of these stages are important for different bird species but the path isn’t always linear. Natural disturbance including flooding, wind throw, burning, and drought set back the habitat and things start again. The wetlands that rails typically use are dominated by annual and perennial vegetation that is non-woody in nature and are fairly early on the successional scale, so they benefit from disturbance that goes backwards again.
So when you’re favorite wetland patch gets disced or burned, try not to get to irate at your friendly wetland manager, they are just trying to think long term and keep a good mix of different stage wetlands out there for all the amazing bird species that use them.
But, you’re probably asking, how does this info help me find rails?
In general, rails aren’t known to show any site fidelity. This means that individual birds don’t return year after year to the same place. Part of this may be because rails have relatively short lives (1-3 years) but the other part of it is because wetlands are systems of constant change, and being ‘tied’ to a single site might not be advantageous since one year it’ll be great and the next it might be burned or totally dry. Even before humans put up levees and started to intensively manage many of these inland wetlands, they were highly variable systems.
This makes life hard on birders, you can’t just have a ‘rail spot’ but instead you might have to rediscover that spot each year. I think it’s important to appreciate the diversity of the wetland system and understand why this challenge is put in front of you. Part of the challenge of birding is that hunt, I’ll be writing up a post up soon about how to find rails, or at least hear them during the fall, but I hope that you all enjoy the challenge. Rails are my favorite group of birds because they are so sneaky and challenging and they live in such fascinating systems.
So, how do you find these wetlands that might contain the elusive rails? It’s hard, I’m not gonna lie, they don’t like being seen for the most part but if you go out at the right time and are patient it is possible.
These tips are based on my experience working with rails during migration, so keep that in mind, chances are their behavior is different other times of year. And I don’t work with Clapper Rails, but from what I’ve seen this applies to them as well.
Rails like wetlands with clean water. Sometimes wetlands will have water in them that has been there for months and it starts to get cloudy and smell. You probably won’t find many rails in those units. Rails like dense vegetation. The exact kind of plant species depends on the rail, but in general the denser the better, and if it’s between two and five feet in height you’re probably in the right area. A mixture of annual plants (grasses, smartweed) and perennial emergents (cattails, bulrushes) is ideal for King and Virginia Rails and Soras.
Your best chance of seeing the birds is in openings in the vegetation, along ditches and the edges of pools. This kind of interspersion between plants and veg creates a matrix of great habitat. Patience is crucial here. Try going out on the calmest day you can and find yourself a good spot to just wait. If you can get above the wetland, either high up on a levee or via a boardwalk that is really helpful in spotting them from afar. Look for moving vegetation and listen for calls. Once you see one, be very quiet and still, they will run/flush as soon as they can, unless they are walking under you on a boardwalk, then they often don’t care. Like this Clapper seen on South Padre Island in Texas.
I have never seen a Black Rail but I’m told they like to hang out in wetlands similar to what Yellow Rails use. Yellow Rails like shorter (less than knee high), very dense vegetation with very little to no water. Damp soil is really ideal. To see them you’re either going to have to get really lucky or do some leg work. If you’re allowed out in the wetlands (check local rules), find some good habitat and arrange a rail walk. Space everyone apart a few feet and walk slowly through, again watching for moving vegetation. These birds can run like you would not believe! There are Yellow Rail walks every year at Anhuac National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and at the Yellow Rail and Rice Festival in Louisiana, if you’re looking to feed the travel bug as well.
Sora are a whole different story simply because they are generalists and don’t hate being seen as much as other rails. They are also very vocal during the fall. I suggest going out to your local wetland haunt right about sunset and slamming your car door. Chances are many, many Sora will call back. It’s really fantastic. Sora tend to be bolder than the other rails and this makes them much easier to see.
Many people will tell you the only way to see a rail is to use playback, and while this is effective I am not going to promote doing that. It’s true that often you will hear rails and not see them but it is very possible to hear them without playback. Go out at sunrise or sunset and just sit and listen. Once one rail starts calling other species will often join.
If you go out at sunset to listen for rails and you’re allowed to stay out there at night, try walking along the edge of the levees and running a flashlight along the nearest water/plant edge. The rails who are out and about will probably be temporarily disoriented by the light and you can get a good look at them. Keep in mind that you might be mistaken for someone out spotlighting for deer, which is illegal in some areas, so be careful.
Rails are my favorite birds, they are sneaky and clever and while they have frustrated many birds to the point that some question their existence they are well worth the chase to see. Once you start to see rails you’ll start to see lots of other parts of the wetland as well, so find a still evening and go stalk some rails, who knows what you might see.