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The focus of today was rails - specifically Yellow rail and Black rail. These are two very small, very sneaky birds that spend most of their time buried out of view on the ground beneath dense marsh grasses. Both of these birds can be seen on the famous Anahuac rail walks which take place each spring on the National Wildlife Refuge. These walks have traditionally been the best place in the country to see Yellow rail away from its northern breeding grounds. Black rails nest on the refuge and, occasionally, they too are seen on the walks. I spent some time this morning listening for Black rail before the rail walk but did not hear any. I did, however, this afternoon hear a mockingbird on the refuge giving the classic "ke-ke-ker" Black rail call. It was very strange to hear this call coming from the top of a tree! This year has been a bit of a down year for these rails at the refuge, so I planned on attending the morning and afternoon walks today and an additional two tomorrow. This will be my only shot at Yellow rail this year, but I may be able to squeeze out Black rail somewhere down the line (SF Bay area, for example).
The general idea of these walks is as follows. Participants form a tight phalanx behind a weighted rope that is pulled through the marsh. The combination of the weighted rope and crashing footsteps cause a disturbance that is usually sufficient to flush these furtive birds out of the marsh. Most of the views of these rails are very brief; after the rails flush they dive back down into the dense grass to hide once again. These birds are basically never seen in this area without these tactics. It may seem a bit extreme, but by having a few scheduled and organized walks, disturbance is actually minimized since individual people are not continually stomping through the marsh without supervision.
The birder phalanx
The rail walks are very popular and attract birders from all over the country. This morning I met Big Year legends Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel. Sandy set the North American Big Year record in 1998 with 748 species. John gave this a good run with his 744 species in 2011 (http://www.bigyear2011.com). Sandy's epic year was the subject of Mark Obmascik's book, "The Big Year". This book was eventually made into a major motion picture of the same title. It was great to meet both of them today!
Me, Texas birder Bill Sain, Sandy Komito.
Bill has been incredibly helpful in organizing
the Texas legs of my trip. Notice Sandy's Attu hat!
Note also facial hair variants.
Despite some very heavy birding firepower present at both rail walks today, we did not find either Black or Yellow rail on either the morning or afternoon walks. However, there was a HUGE consolation prize that appeared right as the morning walk ended. We received word of a Ruff on the refuge, and so everyone went tearing off to try to refind it. Ruff is a European shorebird that often wanders to North America. Female Ruffs are called Reeves. This will become relevant in a moment.
As soon as I heard about the Ruff, I took off at a dead sprint to where it was reported. This was a bird that I did not expect to see this year, and this would likely be my only shot at it. It would also help soften the blow of a rail-less morning. I arrived just behind the car crowd. Armed with spotting scopes, everyone started combing the area where the bird had been reported. John and I were apparently both watching the same suspicious bird through some grass. As soon as it finally popped it, both he and I shouted, "There it is!". We got confirmation from other birders, and all in attendance were treated to decent albeit distant views of the bird (hence no photos, sorry).
John and I celebrating after simultaneously
relocating the Reeve (Ruff) late this morning
The rest of the day was filled with continued shorebirding, and, after a bunch of 2pm arrivals, decent landbirding. Landbirding was highlighted by Worm-eating warbler and lots of Scarlet tanagers. I also saw a few nice King rails today which is always a treat.
47 miles today (44 below, plus ~3 unmapped)
I now want to leave the birding discussion for a bit to address something a bit more personal. Today I had a personal affirmation that I think will prove invaluable for the rest of my life: I can accomplish anything to which I completely devote myself. This is a cliche that I have heard often, but today I finally believed. When I took the risk to swap my life as a scientist for the life of a biking birder, I had no idea in what form personal growth might come. Today it came in the form of an absolute and unwavering belief in myself. No matter what discovery I could have made in my lab in the last 4 months, it would have been dwarfed by the personal insight that I had today. I have no idea what the rest of 2014 may hold for me, but I can say without hesitation that even if I do not see another bird for the rest of the year, it will have been an incredible success. I have challenged myself in ways I never thought I would, and I have been propelled in large part by the thousands of people around the world who are as excited about this project as I am. Perhaps these feelings have been precipitated by the huge number of people who have passed along kind words to me in my last few days of Texas birding. This adventure is for everyone, and I hope that people are as excited for the rest of it as I am. One of the reasons I left my old career was that I felt I did not have the chance to sufficiently inspire other people. After speaking with many of you today, this is apparently exactly what Biking for Birds is doing for birders around the world. As of today, I know that I can transfer this inspiration to whatever I chose to do when this amazing journey finally does conclude. Watch out world......