BLACK RAIL (Finally!)

In May, 2014 I wrote about hearing but NOT SEEING the elusive Black Rail….it would have been #700.

Well, E-Bird was reporting several of these shrew-sized birds reliably calling during the day (normally a pm activity) in the Alviso marsh in the Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge near San Jose. Since I was already in SF, the 50 mile drive south was a non-decision.

Don Edwards SF Bay NWR (San Jose)

I arrived at dawn and two other birders were already in place at the end of the boardwalk in the above photo. We heard several black rails give their signature “kic-kic-kerr” calls and “grr-grr-grr” growls. Seeing one of these tiny, shy marsh-slinkers is considered one of the most difficult achievements in North American birding; photographing one is nearly impossible. After two hours the guy gave up. The lady birder lasted another two hours but also departed, leaving me by myself. I was tempted to use my I-phone bird app to try to stir one of the birds but…remember….that is not ethical.

The calls and growls were coming from only a few feet away but I could not see any movement in the dense marsh grass. I had to leave in 45 minutes to make my business meeting in Mountain View. Frustration was peaking when I saw something walk by an empty Gatorade bottle brought in by the tide. My heart jumped. The bird gave me a two second look….it was a rail; but it was the much more common Virginia Rail. But wait, another shadow caught my eye as I peered down over the edge of the boardwalk railing. It looked like a mouse but it wasn’t a rodent. The Black Rail! Unmistakeable white flecks dotted its back and a chestnut-brown nape gleamed in the bright sun. I watched it for at least five seconds and then it was gone.

Incredibly satisfied, I mean sooo content I cannot explain…I drove to my meeting – in my birding clothes. Thankfully the fellow I met was quite understanding and being California, didn’t expect to see me in a coat and tie. My next meeting had cancelled earlier in the day so I had a crazy thought. Why not go back to the marsh and attempt a photo with my I-phone? How can I write this blog without showing an image? Of course, I had not even considered bringing my Nikon camera on this trip. Nobody photographs a Black Rail.

I returned to the boardwalk and waited with my I-phone camera “on” with arms extended over the exact spot I had seen it earlier. It was 2pm. Every ten minutes or so a rail called. Clearly the end of the boardwalk was in the middle of its territory. I waited and waited. At one point I returned to my car and recharged my phone for 15 minutes. By 4pm the calls were more frequent. I prayed and I questioned my sanity. But my patience and persistence paid off!

Black Rail (looking down at it back)

Black Rail (looks like a white-speckled mouse)

ABA Area #775 officially in the books.

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.
This entry was posted in Quest for 700 (*800!). Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to BLACK RAIL (Finally!)

  1. Jeff Day says:

    775 is a great number for you GCW’75 — way to go!

  2. Joe Weisbord says:

    Unbelievable, GW!

  3. Joe Cox says:

    Great report, George!!! Glad you got the photo!! Joe

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Glass, Dennis says:

    Good news. Best 


  5. Joe Cox says:

    George, I shared this with my college roommate, Dave Baker ( He is a pretty serious birder, so you may hear from him. Hope so! Joe

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. Joe Cox says:

    Too bad you didn’t buy a lottery ticket while you were there.

    Sent from my iPhone


  7. david lincoln says:

    What a great story. Nice work Georgie. Patience. Persistence. Pays off. It’s what we try and teach our children. Talk the talk. Walk the walk. Good job!👍

    “Growth Equity for Energy & Industrial Innovation”

    David Lincoln
    Element Partners
    565 E. Swedesford Rd.; Suite 207
    Wayne, PA 19087
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    610.322.2100 cell
    Sent from my iPhone

  8. Eliza J. Anderson says:

    Great story! Congrats on persistence paying off!

  9. Arlin S Green says:

    Very cool! As always, thanks for sharing.

  10. Mace says:

    Tremendous patience, George …. photo was the ultimate payoff!

  11. Tina says:

    HI George. Congrats on the picture. Not sure I would have had the patience. but by now you know the benefit. Glad you got the photo to document your find.

  12. Julie Foster says:

    Your patience amazes me. Did you see Paul when you were in Mountain View? He lives there.

  13. Anne Wood says:

    Your mother says it is a white speckled mouse! So there!


  14. Joe Knowles says:

    Nicely done, George — and a terrific piece! Birding can actually be exciting and we’re all right there with you. Joe

  15. Cheers Joe! This WAS a tough tough one to see. But to photograph……never in my wildest dreams:)

  16. James Buck says:

    The way you “spin your yarn”, Woody… so exciting! I enjoy reading of your bird exploits, none more than this one involving the Black Rail. (I loved your mom’s comment.) Thanks, always, for sharing! Jim ’77 (part of #775, I will add)

    • Thanks Jimbo. Appreciate the kind words. Was in SF for a PU rugby gathering over wkd (World Cup at ATT Park). Won’t need a beer for awhile and that rail sighting might keep my birding appetite satisfied for a long time!

  17. chasscrew says:


    This is awesome! Hope that all is well and that we see you soon!

    Cheers, Anne

    Anne Standish


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