Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Finding Rails Can Be An Adventure
November 12, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     A couple of weeks ago, Chris Floyd of Lexington was birding at Fort Hill in Eastham on Cape Cod. He was searching the marsh for a reported sedge wren when he flushed a yellow rail! This secretive bird is a rare fall migrant along coastal Massachusetts. It reminded me of my first yellow rail, one that I saw in Newburyport ten years ago, so I would like to share that story with you again:

     Ron Lockwood of Bolton tracked me down at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center to tell me that he had seen a yellow rail that morning in the marsh near Plum Bush, just this side of the Plum Island Bridge. He said that he had been looking in that area for the last tens years for a yellow rail, thinking it was ideal habitat for one. They do breed in northern Maine and eastern Canada, so they must come through here in migration. It is difficult enough to find rails – even our local breeding rails that all do a fine job of slithering through the marsh grasses undetected. They move between two blades of grass without moving either and, thus, the term “thin as a rail”. 

     The yellow rail is the second smallest rail and a rare fall migrant in Massachusetts. Most of the recent sightings (since the mid-1950s) have been from Cape Cod. So, needless to say, I headed straight for Plum Bush. Ron had to leave, but he gave me directions to where he had seen it. I called my friend, Phil Brown, and told him about the bird. Phil was in Ipswich, but said that he would meet me there in fifteen minutes. When I arrived at the area just south of the Plum Island Turnpike, it was after low tide and the astronomically high tide that was expected that afternoon was beginning to come in. Phil arrived and we walked out into the marsh, walking parallel to the road toward the river. Of course, my rubber boots were not in the car, but my hiking shoes were getting old enough to sacrifice for this bird. 

     Phil and I split up and meandered our way along the numerous canals and ditches, occasionally hopping over one to get to the next. Our only hope was to flush the bird and then get on it with our binoculars. We encountered a few saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows, but no rail. Two hours of searching turned up nothing, and we were worried that the tide was coming in and that we would be stranded out there. We made our way back to the cars and decided to go to the Island and bird for a while. We planned to come back at high tide, hoping that the bird would be up high enough to scope from the parking lot.

     As it turned out, we had few birds on the Refuge. At around 2pm, we decided to make our way back to Plum Bush and, we hoped, the rail. Driving up the refuge road, I received a call from Ida Giriunas:

     “Steve! Chris Floyd, John and Audrey are out in the middle of the marsh with a scope and they are waving their arms like they have the bird! There is no way I can get out there.”

     I told Ida that we were on our way. Now Ida is a seventy-something feisty lady and an excellent birder, whom I have spoken about before. When we arrived at the paved parking lot at the bridge, Ida had her two ski poles with her and was determined, despite hip-replacements, etc., to see that bird. Molly, also in her seventies, was with Ida, and equally determined. Out in the middle of the marsh, or should I say water, were Chris, John and Audrey, with a scope and signaling that they have the bird in sight.

     The tide was very high – two feet above the marshes grasses with only the stands of phragmites and cattails rising above the water. It was near impossible to tell where the canals and ditches were, as the tall grasses waved under the water. Phil and I did know that there was a deep canal running along the road and beside the paved lot, that would, easily be over our heads, so we went back to the Plum Bush turnout and walked in from there, as we had done that morning. We tried to follow the route we had taken in the morning and avoid the deep ditches and canals as best we could. Phil went first, and I tried to follow, but I could not move as fast as he through the deep flooded grass. 

     I looked back and saw that Ida and Molly had also begun to feel their way along, trying to follow our lead. As Phil approached the others with the scope, I wasn’t so lucky. One foot found a ditch and I went down, over my waist, binoculars and all. Thank goodness they were waterproof! I recovered and continued on, stumbled again, but finally reached the others. A look through the scope yielded a bird not more than twelve feet away, hidden in the grass. I could make out an eye, and then a bill, and, as it moved slightly, the striping on its back. Not the best look, but enough to identify it as a yellow rail. 

     As we positioned ourselves around the bird, John found another hole and went in over his waist. I did the same, this time in a muddy ditch so my jeans were full of mud and I got wet up to the chest. Luckily I had my cell phone in my left shirt pocket which, somehow, remained dry as the right pocket was drenched.

     Chris went back to help Ida and Molly find there way around the ditches (I would certainly have been of no help.) They finally arrived and had the same views, from slightly different angles, of the rail. We then saw Davis Noble of Marblehead and Steve Sutton of Lancaster making their way to us. However, they had even more problems than I at negotiating the canals and, at times, we couldn’t even see Davis’ white hat, and he is much taller than I! 

          When Davis and Steve finally arrived a half hour later, dripping from the neck down, (and, unfortunately, Davis’ Leica digital camera was also wet), the bird had moved enough in the grass that we couldn’t see it. After searching the grass with our binoculars and scope, and not having seen the bird leave, we decided to approach the spot. Phil, Steve and I surrounded the spot and walked toward each other. When we met, the bird was not there. We went back and forth several times over the area, and nothing! The bird had disappeared!

     Phil walked one more time over the spot and, suddenly, out flew the rail! It flew about thirty feet, for all to see the white wing patches, and it lit atop a grass clump where Phil got pictures and the rest of us had full views. After viewing the bird for a few minutes, it again disappeared and further searching seemed fruitless. We were all soaked. Someone commented that we were lucky that it was warm enough so that we weren’t cold standing in two feet of water in wet “street” clothes! 

     The tide was receding and we decided to give the rail and ourselves a rest. We made our way slowly back to the cars, wet and tired, but satisfied with finding a yellow rail, which was a life bird for most of us.

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