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.
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!
ABA Area #775 officially in the books.