Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Black Rails Continue to Draw a Crowd
June 12, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     Last Saturday I told you about the black rails that were calling in the North Pool Marsh on the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island. Such rare birds in Massachusetts deserve more to be said about them. As of that writing, Margo hadn’t heard the birds, so we went again last Friday evening to try to listen for them. We were among thirty birders who kept vigil that evening listening for this secretive tiny ball of feathers that skulks among the marsh grasses. This bird is seldom seen, even in its usual breeding areas, so hearing the bird is the best that anyone can hope for.

     Our friend, Doug Chickering, was among the crowd, and he wrote about the experience that we all had that evening:

     “I don’t think I have ever seen so many birders so delighted NOT seeing a bird. The ensemble of 30 or so enthusiasts had waited patiently in a cool but oddly muggy evening. The light had slowly drained away and we had endured a twilight assault of No-see-um’s. It seemed as if the day was over; our vigil would go unrewarded. We had just been politely informed by the Refuge security that we had to leave. The night had arrived – we had over stayed the rules of the refuge. We were resigned and a little dispirited as groups broke up, the faithful slowly started to leave. I was sitting in my car ready to power up and go when I noticed Scott Spangenberg suddenly stop and look into the marshes. The unmistakable body language was that he was on to something.

     “”I hear it!” he declared, and everyone around him stopped to listen. Before I could leap from my car the flash of confirmation spread out around him. Everyone was hearing it. Lois and I were over to the side of the road in a flash, listening intently. Although the bird was not near; the call was clear and unmistakable. Black Rail. Kikki purr, kikki purr over and over again.

     “From glum resignation a ripple to excited triumph spread out as more and more picked out the distant but distinct call from this tiny unseen creature. As we all listed in unalloyed joy the security officer returned, no doubt expecting a surly group, defiant and uncooperative. Instead he found a group of satisfied, delighted birders some of whom thanked him for his patience. I am sure that he was baffled that so many people could be made happy by the distant call of a tiny bird they could not and would not see. If you are not a birder there is no sufficient explanation; if you are a birder an explanation is superfluous…

     “The Black Rail…is Plum Island Life bird number 325. Wow! A Black Rail on Plum Island! To quote the immortal Chuck Berry: “Far out”.”

     Scott Spangenberg reported his find, as well as some of the other birds we heard that evening while waiting for the rail to call:

     “We heard at least one Black Rail begin calling at 8:43PM… just as we started to walk back to the truck, approximately 60 seconds after the warden said it was time to wrap it up. I can’t say whether more than one was calling because I ran back to make sure everyone had a chance to hear it. Although the bird was clearly audible 150 feet north of the stone marker for the town line (while it was not at our feet, Frances was able to get a clear recording on her phone), the bird was barely audible at the marker, and not at all audible 150 feet south of the marker… In addition to this delightful little skulker, we heard a pair of Great Horned Owls, at least two Virginia Rails, at least two Sora, three Alder Flycatchers, five Whippoorwills, a flyby Tricolored Heron ands three flyby Night Herons.

     “…We didn’t miss thanking the warden for the opportunity for such a great experience. The 53,462 blood sucking, fire-mouthed No-see-ums. We did not thank.”

     The no-see-ums and mosquitoes are small annoyances to birders when they have the chance to see or, in this case, hear a bird so rare. Birders are traveling from all over Massachusetts and New England, and they standing vigil in the otherwise tranquil evenings on Plum Island to try to hear these black rails.

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