North America’s toughest birds: One more

I arrived right at the crack of dawn. Low thin mist still lay over the marshes this early, but it would burn-off within minutes. I had traveled to Anahuac NWR on a late spring morning to come to grips with one of the difficult birds in North America, a bird rarely glimpsed by casual birders and one seen only after hard work and patience, or incredible luck. This tough bird scurries through dense marshes and is much more often heard than seen. Its drab gray and black plumage seems to render it invisible among thick reeds or dense cordgrass. And its fierce red eyes have probably seen more birders straining theirs in vain than vice versa. A lucky few have glimpsed one cross a trail or road, but many have gone looking and have come up empty handed.

Of course I am talking about the Black Rail. There are areas in the United States where this gnome of the marshes is supposedly “easier” to see, but I relegate those tales to the realm of myths and legends. Yet I pulled over at the Yellow Rail prairie in Anahuac in hopes of spotting one. This late in the year not another soul was out there. The Yellow Rails had left for the north already, but the resident Black Rails should still be there. The spring’s famous Yellow Rail walks, better called marches, had ceased a few weeks ago. With the birds, the birders had left. I set off into the clumps of sticky cord grass, high stepping through the dry marshes.

Within a few minutes I had success and heard a Black Rail call close by. Its distinctive kick-kick-kerr stood out among the dozen Seaside Sparrows buzzing. I walked towards the hidden bird and then followed a prolonged stare at grass, nothing. Another kick-kick-kerr drew me deeper in the marsh, fortunately mostly dry, but the spartina was lodging itself solidly into my shins, little souvenirs. I walked a couple of circles, but the calling bird remained stubbornly out of sight. I came even within a few feet of it and was about to plunge into the marsh, but the bird ran off, or walked off, or beamed to another spot, I couldn’t tell, there was just grass, apparently full of invisible rails.

Minutes turned into hours, and hours into one long day. I was so close I couldn’t give up. By midday, yes midday, the heat danced in simmers above the prairie. Even the mosquitoes had retreated. There was utter silence, except for the occasional siren song of a Black Rail. I trudged on, at this point a bit desperate and severely dehydrated. If I would have collapsed this time of year, they would have found my bleached bones during next spring’s rail walks, at the earliest.

I changed strategies and headed back towards the edge of the prairie, closer to the car, so I could at least have a fighting chance dragging my exhausted body back to the vehicle. Near the fence line another rail called. At this point I could have counted the bird as heard only, like many more sensible birders do. It could have been a memorable morning, with dawn rising over the marshes, the clirr and buzz of Seaside Sparrows, the call of the Black Rail, back in the car by 7 am and home just an hour later, putting a checkmark followed with a fat heard only on my list. Something cold to drink and a large breakfast to celebrate. But no, here I was, empty stomach growling, trying to lay eyes on something that had perfectly evolved not to be seen.

Crossing the fence I found an open patch of standing water, just a thin film of wet, near the road. The first time I had seen the ground in several hours. I waited, not by choice, I just couldn’t move anymore. I crouched down and wiped the sweat from my brow, staring at the patch of open ground like it held the answer to all of life’s questions. I didn’t have to wait long before the answer came. Yes, they do exist and, yes, they are tiny things with fierce red eyes. A Black Rail snuck from cover into the open, stopping for just a moment, stared, and disappeared before I could raise my binoculars. For just ten seconds one of North America’s toughest birds had relented, allowing just a glimpse, but that was enough for a lifetime or life list and a memorable day.

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