Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sept 20 (Day 263) - Black rail frustrations, Ridgeway's rail in the house though!

I am actually writing this post from Starbucks in the middle of the day. Last night Sonia and I searched (i.e. listened) for Black rails in some areas around Schollenberger Park and the Ellis Water Treatment Plant in Petaluma, CA. We stayed about 3.5 miles from this area. I actually birded the area in the afternoon to get a feel for the area. We returned at ~7pm and stayed until 10:30pm without hearing any Blacks rails. I then biked back to where we were staying, getting in at 11pm. I hit the hay at 11:30, got up at 5am, and was back at the birding spot at 5:45am. I stayed there until 11am, again without success. I also spent some time scoping the mudflats for Pacific golden-polver, but this bird also avoided ticking. I did, however, late in the morning manage to catch a 2 second glimpse of the newly split Ridgeway's rail for year bird #554. I will certainly see more of these as I move south along the coast. I was joined for part of the morning by conservation biologist and local birder Mark Dettling. We have been communicating via email for some time. It was great to hang and bird today!

Me and Mark this morning

Black rails are as hard a bird I will have to find this year. This is due to a number of factors:

1) They are not widespread. The best areas to find them are probably the Texas Coast (where I missed) and the SF Bay Area (where I am now).

2) The are very small (5-6') and very secretive. They live in thick marshes.

3) They are black and largely nocturnal - Yeah, looking for a small, secretive, black bird at night sucks. This is why most people just listen for them.

5) This is the worst time of year to see or hear them. Some people see them as they are pushed out of the marsh on high winter tides, but most often they are heard-only. Problem is that they are very quiet at this time of year. It would be much easier if I was here in spring or summer.

So, you can see what a pain in the ass it is to see or hear this bird. In fact, I have done neither in my life! That I am on a bike really makes this more difficult. Why? Access. I am having a very hard time finding places to stay near the good Black rail areas. I do not want to stay 15 miles away since that's potentially 30 miles of night riding. Last night was Friday and tonight is Saturday which means there are more drunks than usual on the roads. I have at many points this year thrown the calls for safety out the window to access birds, but in this case I am actually listening to them. Every hotel and campground in the North Bay is completely booked for this weekend compounding the housing problem.  We had a sweet housing arrangement last night, but there appears to have been a miscommunication that has resulted in my having no place to stay for tonight. Well, no place with decent, safe access to Black rails. I have seen some really sketchy stuff going down in isolated marshes during my birding career, and I do not want to get caught in an odd place on a bike in the middle of the night that I have not scouted out in the daylight ahead of time.

If you're a birder with Black rails down the street from you and would put me up for a night or two, gimme a shout!

For these reasons, this bird is a royal headache right now. I also feel like a terrible boyfriend at the moment as my days now revolve around where to hear - not even see - this bird. I am so stressed as to how to handle this bird that I am not giving Sonia the attention that she deserves. She slept in a bit while I birded this morning, but the rest of the day has been spent at Starbucks or other places where we can plug in our stuff and rest before the next rail hunt. Sitting at cafes strategizing how to find this bird is now how I want to spend the time I have with her. The search for this bird is so focused that not much else is going to happen while I am looking specifically for it.

Since this post has been nothing but doom and gloom, here are 3 funny videos Sonia and I made at the marsh last night. And, yes, they are dark by design......

Video 2 needs an explanation. Sept 19 is 
International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Sonia remembered this as we were listening 
for the rail last right. 

We are going have to get a bit creative to tick this bird......

10 miles total today - 6 mapped + 4 of birding


  1. Do you use playback recordings in the field to help with the rails?

    - Sam Plew

  2. Maybe you'd be better positioned for birding at Monterey Bay if you took a break now and just hung out with Sonia? Sort of give a day here in order to be better rested later?

  3. When we lived in Grass Valley our neighbors had a little pond that was frequently visited by Black Rails. The neighbors said that an ornithologist from Berkeley would come and sit for hours at night recording them, etc. We lived there for four years and never saw or heard them. They are quite secretive little birds. I wish you lots of good luck in getting to hear this one.

  4. Dorian, I've heard Black Rails many times in the morning. Getting up early and going would put you on your way after all of the drunks have been arrested or killed and you wouldn't have to ride back in the dark.