In pursuit of the rare BLACK RAIL….call it 699 1/2 ???

699 1/2…What does that mean? The short version is: I heard the Black Rail…. but never saw it. The longer version follows.

Nailing the Mountain Quail (#699) early Saturday morning meant that I had two days and nights to devote to the pursuit of #700 before my Monday flight. At that moment, the BLACK RAIL was the only bird within an eight hour drive of San Francisco that was missing from my life list. (There is a rare Red-billed Tropicbird flying around the ocean off San Diego…too far). Black Rail is a most worthy candidate for owning the coveted #700 spot because this mysterious six inch, super-secretive marsh bird is generally recognized to be one of, if not the, MOST DIFFICULT BIRD TO SEE in the wild. It rarely flies, as it prefers to creep around the pickle weed like a mouse. It does vocalize but almost exclusively at night. Of course, besides just wanting to see this bird for myself, I also felt added pressure to take a recognizable photograph to satisfy you readers and cap off this wonderful blogging experience. (Note: Apologies to my SF friends for not checking in, but my OCD-ness was in overdrive and disabled the emotional side of my brain).



The bird breeds in the Corte Madera marshes within view of San Quentin prison…no, I won’t add “jail-bird” to my list. Daylight birding produced some interesting sightings like White-tailed Kite, Marbled Godwit, American Avocet and a Manta Ray that rode the swift incoming tide a bit too long! But not a hint of any rail, not even the common Clapper Rail. Nocturnal birding is more productive when binoculars are supplemented with a high-powered light and taped calls of the Black Rail. Add the fact that the weather was calm and the full moon produced a very high tide pushing the birds into a tighter space, my chances were perfect. Well, in fact, I heard several Black Rails calling over the course of many hours both Saturday and Sunday nights. At times they sounded like they were right in front of me. The noise they make is like no other rail or bird. “Kic-kee-doo” repeated over and over is imprinted on my brain and may bother me for a very long time! The males have clearly perfected a strategy of avoiding predators (herons, hawks, bobcats, birders?) while simultaneously calling attention to themselves for mating purposes.

I am 100% confident there were no other birders in the field duplicating my efforts….so Black Rails were indeed present. But I never saw one and thus remain at 699…..or is it 699 1/2 ???


About George C. Wood

A birder since age ten, but not necessarily an avid "lister", I am closing in on 700 (*800!) species seen in North America.....hoping to capture each sighting with my camera.
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8 Responses to In pursuit of the rare BLACK RAIL….call it 699 1/2 ???

  1. ANNE WOOD says:

    I thought hearing it counted – but then you would never get to the Pribilofs

  2. Tom Mason says:

    Disappointing, yes, but now its on to Alaska to nail it down. Don’t look back.

  3. Ted Hill says:

    Nosing around San Quentin at night? George, your dedication is overwhelming … a bit scary, actually.

    Ted Hill

  4. Gub says:

    When I was a kid taking golf lessons at Apawamis, our instructor, Asst. Pro “Cotton” Dunn, used to critique our shots by saying, “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”!

    You will see #700 soon!

  5. bill says:

    You need night vision goggles haha

  6. Lisa says:

    I have no doubt ….. only great confidence….you will get it!

  7. Ziesing, Peter R says:

    George – almost! Keep it up – you’re almost there! Best, PRZ☺

  8. Wistar says:

    Bummer! I wonder how many birders actually see the rails they count… Keep grinding Bro!!!

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