First off, there were far too many “punny” titles for this post (almost none of which I thought up on my own/didn’t steal from an internet meme) – “Children of the Corncrake” – “Jimmy Crake Corn and I don’t care” – “Crexit through the gift shop”…you get the idea.
By now, it’s a well known saga involving the Long Island corn crake discovered on November 7th by Ken and Sue Feustel. Part ecological oddity, part traffic and transportation education, and part Shakespearean tragedy, this ABA rarity had it all. I was lucky enough (or silly enough to skip out on work, depending on how you shake it) to see this bird the day after its discovery on Wednesday the 8th. In the company of many other birders from far and wide, I have to say this was one of the better chases I’ve attempted. The bird was incredibly cooperative and offered exceptional looks, and the birders I interacted with were all cordial, helpful, and respectful of the critter.
Despite the fact that I live in Rhode Island, I actually started my journey south on I-95 from Boston at Logan airport before sunrise. Heading south, I picked up fellow bird-nerd/Phd student/Borneo big day-er Andy Boyce in Kingston, RI, and we chugged our way across Connecticut, Queens, and Long Island in hopes of catching this Eurasian rail. The 3+ hour car ride had a nervous energy to it – while the crake was reported alive and well that morning, there was a mixed bag of traffic/parking related issues being reported on facebook and other rare bird alerts. Also, this bird was hanging out within 5 feet of a highway, so even though it was alive in the morning, there was no guarantee it would make it through the day (some foreshadowing, perhaps?). Plus, who knows how many feral cats stalk the mean streets of coastal Long Island. Our imaginations ran wild with the thought of some anti-bird cop standing in the median, blocking anyone from viewing the bird while letting his pet Persian loose for a midday snack. We were even prepared to puncture one of my tires along the highway if necessary, pulling over to ‘fix’ my car with a tire iron and a pair of binoculars.
As you can tell from the photos and video, we did not have to resort to such tomfoolery. Upon arrival at 1230, the situation was well handled, with ample and legal parking nearby. Helpful birders pointed us to the right stakeout spot in the highway median as we glanced across the two-lane 50mph zone. Within minutes, the crake skulked out from the brush. It didn’t take long for it to venture out and forage in the grass, seemingly unfazed by fast traffic, lack of cover, and 30+ people with optics staring at it from across the road. Andy and I left long Island by 2, missing the bulk of NYC traffic and revisiting my old friend I-95 for a successful trip home.
Obviously, this was a heck of a sighting. First and foremost, the crake records in the US are scant, particularly since a) the are rails and by nature cryptic b) few folks hunt with dogs or hunt rails anymore on the east coast c) corn crake populations were falling for sometime late in the 20th century in Europe, although it appears populations are doing well these days in Asia d) the odds of finding a crake alive, i.e. not eaten by cat or hit by car seem slim1. Thus, to be able to chase one and observe it feeding was really outrageous. I was truly struck by the crisp black plumage, rich buff colors on the flanks, and overall chunk of the bird. Equally amazing was that everyone was treated to up close looks at the foraging behavior of the crake. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking about how odd of a location this bird chose to stick too. However, the food availability did not appear to be a limiting factor, as many folks observed it crushing worms. Also, the scrub edge by the highway looked like solid cover once the bird decided to take it every so often. Having tracked other earthworm aficionados (woodcock) for my research, there does seem to be a bit of an (often fatal) attraction to highway medians and edges.
Alas, we all know what happened next. Birders found the crake the next morning, apparently struck by a vehicle. Maybe in crake lore there is some sort of Icarus-like tale of the corn crake who got too close to the highway in search of a really big worm…..
I must say, I am very impressed with the birding community for recovering the specimen and getting it to the proper folks. While it well and truly sucks that this bird had to meet such an unpleasant fate, the specimen along with the countless photos will provide an excellent record of this great bird. All jest and anthropomorphism aside, this bird was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time on the mystical and difficult journey known as migration. Who knows how long it had been in the area before discovery, and who knows how often and where corn crakes make landfall in North America. Migration is considered to be the biggest contributor to mortality for many birds2, and while the physiological demands of cross-continental journeys are difficult enough, bad weather, window strikes, depredation, and vehicle collisions are all obstacles to a safe arrival in wintering areas. As far as the corn crake goes, it was a helluva chase and a great bird to list for those that got to see it.
1. Howell, Steve N.G., Ian Lewington & Will Russell. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton University Press, 2014.
2. Sillett, Scott and Richard T. Holmes. Variation in survivorship of a migratory songbird throughout its annual cycle. Journal of Animal Ecology, 2002