Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rare Black Rails Raise Excitement on Plum Island
June 5, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     We have experienced some steamy weather the past couple of weeks, which makes it feel more like summer than spring. It is perhaps a fitting end to the spring migration as the last of the land migrants trickle through and the summer resident birds get to work building nest and raising young. Some of the resident birds have already had their first brood and those birds that arrived in the past few weeks are busy building nests or sitting on eggs.

     Doug Chickering of Groveland shares with us a Plum Island visit during the last week of May:

     “I birded Plum Island this morning and there was an almost eerie feel of deep summer to it. There were still migrants about; I had Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Green and Blue; Northern Waterthrush, Magnolia Warbler, Alder Flycatcher, a few Blackpolls. All birds that will be gone when real summer arrives. dodging Greenheads. I got my main target bird early in the morning as I got my scope on a nice Seaside Sparrow perched up in the green marsh grass just north of the pans, and I actually saw a Virginia Rail making his way through the dead phrags at the marsh trail. I failed to turn up the Mourning Warbler that many have been seeing.

     “Yet the part that seemed like mid August instead of the end of May was the shorebirds. Especially the shore birds in the drawn down Bill Forward Pool. I had found a smattering of Black-bellied Plovers, Short Billed Dows and a couple of really nice Ruddy Turnstones out in the marshes behind Grape Island. Also there were a number of Sanderlings and Semipalmated Plovers at Sandy Point. This I expected. These have been regular features of my spring birding on Plum. What was a true surprise were the shorebirds at the Bill Forward Pool as seen from the new blind. There were lots of them.

     “Over 100 Semipalmated Sandpipers, probably thirty Short-billed Dows, a half dozen White-rumped Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, and several nicely marked Black-bellied Plovers. Mixed in with them I picked up an apparently-not-yet-extinct Red Knot in full spring array. The day was hot, the Kingbirds were agitated; I could hear a Savannah Sparrow singing from beyond the blind. It had a definite August feel to it.

     “This has been a good spring and I’m not ready to cash it in yet. I hope there is a few more Black-throated Blues left in the immediate feature. And I haven’t seen a Mourning Warbler yet.”

     I don’t know if Doug caught up with a mourning warbler this past week. I do know that his attention has shifted, like every other birder in the area, to black rails that were found in the North Pool marsh on Plum Island this week. Two experienced birders were ending a “big day” of birding all over the state on Memorial Day when they heard a black rail calling after dark at the North Pool.

     Black rails are small, dark rails that are seldom seen, even in their normal fragmented ranges in the south, west and mid section of the country. There are few records for Massachusetts. Rails, in general, are difficult birds to see because they walk among the marsh grasses without even moving a blade of grass – thus the saying “thin as a rail.” The black rail is so small and secretive, that I believe it is now the only bird in all of North America that is accepted by the American Birding Association by sound. It has a distinctive “kee kee drr” call.

     Tuesday evening, I was along the road at the North Pool marsh with Rick Heil and Jeff Offerman listening for the black rail that was found the night before. It was mostly overcast, and the early darkness helped, as the rails began to call off and on beginning at about 7 pm. We heard the local Virginia and Sora rails calling and we did hear the black rail call several times. We had to listen intently as the birds only were quite far out in the marsh and it was hard to hear them over the loud bobolinks and willets.

     It was close to 8pm when the black rail became more vocal. Then, I realized that we were starting to hear a second bird and I said, “There are two!” We all realized that there was a second rail calling almost simultaneously. The two rails were 20 to 30 yards apart, both calling, sometimes at the same time. We listened carefully to be sure that we weren’t hearing an echo. We were not – there were TWO black rails!

     The word got out and the next evening, a group of birders lined the same road along North Pool to listen for the rare black rails. Brian Cassie of Foxboro was among the group, and he told about the experience:

     “It was quite a scene along the Plum Island road last night, twenty-six birders, Old Guard and young turks alike, standing and sitting in virtual silence waiting for a chance to HEAR the Black Rail. This may be the first time in my birdwatching life that I have experienced a group that came together with virtually no chance of seeing the target bird….they were there to hear it. Since I am in the midst of a year dedicated to hearing wildlife, it was a big kick for me. And the Black Rail did call about five times between 8:00 and 8:30 but not in a series. Hearing it was quite honestly next to impossible on this windy night.

     “Also calling at THE SPOT was a Virginia Rail, Marsh Wrens galore, Bobolinks, a pair of Great Horned Owls, Willets, Spring Field Crickets, mosquitoes, American Woodcock, Purple Finch, and many others. Including 2010 Heard Bird #231 – Black Rail.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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