The best chance one has to see and possibly photograph the very elusive yellow rail, a small chicken-like bird, is to attend the Yellow Rail & Rice Festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. The yellow rail breeds in northern Canada and spends the winter in our Gulf Coast marshes. Louisiana is our second-largest rice-producing state and the second harvest of the year, also known as ratoon, occurs in Autumn. This amazing example of cooperation between rice farmers and birdwatchers has been an annual late October event for over a decade.
I decided to trek to southwestern Louisiana to witness this spectacle. I was joined by my intrepid friend, Joe Knowles, who tallied the mega-rare Steller’s Sea-Eagle with me in Maine on New Year’s Day. Joe had worked in Lafayette in the early 1980’s and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to revisit the heart of Cajun & Creole country.
As the farmers drive their combines through the rice fields, birders watch for wildlife – generally rails – which are harmlessly flushed from their hunkered down positions by the loud noise of these huge machines. The birders have an option to sit in the cab, ride alongside the combines in ATV’s, or walk quickly alongside the vehicles paralleling their path. Safety is of utmost importance so many green-vested volunteers shepherd the eager birders and keep them a safe distance from the equipment.
After about an hour, most of the festival’s 75 participants had viewed at least one weak-flying yellow rail. Their large white wing patches are very visible in flight and immediately distinguish them from the other more common rail species that also frequent the fields. But the rails fly a very short distance before settling down beneath the level of the crop. How would I obtain a decent photograph?
Thankfully a group of bird-banders had joined the party and set up their mist nets in one corner of the property. One yellow rail was captured, albeit very briefly, for ornithological research purposes.
Of course, I was pleased to record ABA (USA & Canada) area # 809. But even more enjoyable was witnessing Joe tabulate this rarity to go along with his code 5 Eurasian eagle. Baseball analogy – his lifelist’s “slugging average” is reminiscent of Bryce Harper’s monster play-off performance.