Monday, September 22, 2014

Sept 21 (Day 264) - Relaxing day with Sonia in Petaluma

Since I wrote the blog yesterday afternoon, I will give you an update as to how our day ended. In short, we did not see or hear Black rail last night. This despite ditch camping in a marsh where Black rails are known to be. We found a great stealth campsite where we spent an incredibly pleasant evening together. Our only company were geese and ducks that made a fair amount of noise through the very mild night. We started birding again before sunrise with the same result as the day before: no rails.

At one point late in the morning, as we were walking around a thick, reedy pond, Sonia saw a reed move in a suspicious manner. She investigated and heard something scratching around at the edge of the reeds. We played a Black rail tape to see if we could pull the potential prize into view. We were standing about 15' apart as we peered into the reeds. They were so thick that visibility was limited to the maybe 6'. Just then a small bird that Sonia described as "a skulking, slow moving slate gray potato" crossed in front of her. She quickly waved me over, but in the 3 seconds it took me to move those 15-20', the bird vanished into the marsh. Showing Sonia photos of Black rails and other possible candidates, she is fairly certain the bird she saw was a Black rail. She saw several Sora yesterday and she said this bird wasn't a Sora. She knows what wrens and sparrows look like, and she was also certain it wasn't either of those. For the next 20 minutes, we could hear something very small shuffling around just out of view in the reeds, but despite repeated taping we could not get the bird to show itself. So close! Sonia may not know how to identify every bird she might encounter, but she does have a great eye for detail. I trust that she did see the rail today.  Looking at eBird reports, it turns out that we found this bird in the exact location from which another birder reported Black rail less than two weeks ago (on 2 different days!). Trusting that she did see a Black rail, I decided to stay in Petaluma for another day to return to this exact spot this evening and again tomorrow morning. Our evening trip back to the spot was marred by high winds (makin birding unproductive), so we will have to rely on one last visit tomorrow morning to try to find this bird. I am cautiously optimistic. 

It was really, really nice to spend the whole day today with Sonia. As I only biked 12 miles around town, she was able to stand/walk by my side for most of the day. Rather than me write second-hand about show she felt about our day, I am going to throw the computer her way for her to tell you about it. 

[Enter Queen Sonia - trumpets sound!]

Hey all! Let me start by saying that I have loved the last week that I've been able to spend with Dorian.  I was getting to a place where the distance was really weighing on me, so having the ability to drive up and see him to spend a significant amount of time together has been fantastic. I'm very happy. 

Is it just me, or does it seems like my visits always correspond with some great search for a really difficult to find bird? Then again, I guess at this stage in Dorian's year, every bird is going to be like this. The rail hunt has been a huge challenge. We have essentially spent 3 days scouring over miles of marsh land in hopes of finding a small black nocturnal bird that has decided to become a mute during our search. Ugh. That said, I have really enjoyed the search. While I'm not an expert birder, the treasure hunting aspect of this type of birding is really fun for me. As Dorian mentioned above, I think I did have a very brief encounter with the Black rail today. I immediately felt a rush of excitement as I called Dorian to my side, only to have my heart sink as it retreated back into the reeds by the time he reached me. You have no idea how badly I wish Dorian and I had switched spots. I spent the rest of the day obsessing about finding this bird again. While Dorian was understandably feeling defeated, I tried to keep his spirits up and hopes alive in finding this bird. We have one more crack at it tomorrow morning and I want this bird to show more than anything I've wanted in a long time. Please say your prayers tonight!

I thought I'd also take a brief moment to talk about the amount of energy this all takes. Seriously, I'm exhausted. We've been waking up at 5am every day, birding hard all day long and crashing hard at night. And I haven't had to ride a bike as my transportation! I have such an incredible admiration for what Dorian does day in and day out. Even writing these short paragraphs are a challenge as I am physically and mentally exhausted. I challenge you all to take one day where you would bird by a car and use a bike instead. At the end of that day, sit down an write about it. Then imagine doing this 365 days in a row. You guys, what he is doing is so incredibly challenging. These small glimpses into his life have been so good for me. 

Here is a photo of the Ross's goose from 2 days ago! I finally found the time to get the photo sorted out this evening.


  1. What great perspective, indeed, Sonia! Thank you for sharing your heart. Also, I said a prayer the Black Rail will show tomorrow:)

  2. Good luck Dorian. As I imagine you know, Black Rails in the bay area inhabit primarily pickleweed. You're not as likely to find them right on the edge of a reedy marsh (where the Soras and Virginia Rails are), as much as walking through the low pickleweed.

    I'm not sure what sort of tape you're playing, but I know that the 'grr-grr' threat call is used by people who survey black rails. (See threat call here )
    The 'ki-ki-drr' might not be as likely to excite a rail out in the marsh. In my experiences, the rails may often respond only briefly with the short 'arp' contact note (see the contact call on the same page )
    You can find examples of either of these on xeno-canto, for example

    I wish I could get out there with you, but I'm teaching all week.

  3. I disagree with you on this one. Playing tape for Black Rail (near threatened according to Birdlife International) is not cool, cannot be consistent with the best interests of the bird, and is at odds with the overall mission of your commendable venture. Kudos to you on the rest.

    1. Hi Eric, I think that's a great point. Taping for birds is never an activity to be taken lightly. I'm honestly of two minds in an endeavor like Dorian's. On the one hand, this is a historic record and every bird has meaning, conservation value, and a story to tell. On the other, you'd hate to cause a bird to waste time, abandon an area, expose itself to predators, et cetera.

      At least this is in the fall, when birds are not going to abandon a nesting attempt or neglect nestlings. I find that most justifications of things like taping and pishing tend to be more for the pisher's self-justification and less about what is really known or not known about the effects of pishing and taping. All this being said, for a record attempt, and during the fall, I would probably do the same thing. Maybe Dorian could try to not mention taping again even if he occasionally does it, to avoid providing tacit approval of taping of sensitive birds in general. I can't remember if he's already written a post about taping or not.

    2. Oh wah freaking wah. This species is not listed as endangered, so one voice among the "Chorus" isn't going to make a difference. I am so sick of bird watchers whining about using tapes when there is no proof about detrimental effect of their use. If there were a dozen people doing so every night for these rails that would be different. But one dude in a marsh for a couple nights trying isn't going to be the downfall of this rail.

    3. Again, it’s listed as near-threatened according to Birdlife International, so any activity that impacts this species well being carries greater consequence than if it was abundant. As to whether the playing of tapes is detrimental or not, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and given that this technology is seeing massive growth in use by field birders, I would seriously doubt that it is harmless, especially in the case of species like Black Rail, which is range restricted, habitat restricted, with a few accessible spots likely repeatedly targeted by playback recordings. I hesitated to post initially and did so only for the reason to which Rob alluded - Dorian is reaching out to a large audience and is to some extent modeling behavior.

      Keeping it civil,

      Eric Masterson

  4. I agree with Rob's comment about trying the growl call as opposed to the song - I've had much better luck with that too. There are several cuts that are easily downloadable on xeno-canto if you need them!