Nature Walk: Writing the rails

Five young mallard ducks stayed together on shore and in the water. (photo by Anita Barbour)

Five young mallard ducks stayed together on shore and in the water. (photo by Anita Barbour)

On a nature drive last week we passed a place where a marsh and a roadside meet. Along some of this interface, tall stands of common reed (Phragmites australis) towered over our heads, and along other stretches bushy roses and willows hid the inner marsh from view. Between these dark, obfuscating patches of vegetation we found smaller openings into duckweed-laden paths level with the water, and here we could cast our gaze a good distance. Through these portals the broader and finer architecture of the marsh was revealed — water-willow and buttonbush shrubs, moss and sedge tussocks, floating logs and jutting stumps.

Our first alert to the animal life at one of these viewing points was a group of young mallard ducks, recently fledged and on their own. When we caught sight of them they were lined up toward the water, peering ahead tentatively from the grassy road shoulder. Each seemed unsure who should lead and who should follow. Our car’s approach seemed to help them decide to get going, and so down and into the marsh they went.


Once on the water the little ducks seemed more at home. They hung together and kept in line, though not so closely as before. They paddled, they dabbled, and they seemed more relaxed and relieved. As we became more absorbed in watching them they seemed to become less wary of us. One little duck leaned across the green water as if to take a drink or a nibble. They were feeling a growing independence, as young animals do as they mature.

Slightly to the side of the ducks’ trail, sheltered between two closely-spaced cattails, we spotted a half-grown wading bird with long legs and splayed feet. Gray-brown, with a short, buff-mottled tail, it looked poised and alert, but too cautious to step into the open. Anita tip-toed toward the bird, her camera’s shutter clicking softly, while I held my breath. Snap after snap of the shutter reassured me that pictures of this wary subject were steadily accumulating.

As the designated driver, from inside the car I kept sight of this unexpected discovery, and tried to get a better look. The plump little bird was too dark to be a sandpiper, and did not bob and weave like one — a young rail maybe? Rails are known to be elusive, hiding and stalking through low thickets, staying effectively invisible. I have heard rails in marshes, or imagined I did, but have seen one only once or twice, and only for a brief second.

After coming home from our road trip we tried to match the photos of our prize bird to reference photos in books and on-line. Its upper bill was thick at the base, and black with a pale groove along the top, a diagnostic marking in rails. Virginia rail was almost a match, but not quite. Its beak is orange, which stymied us as we perused picture after picture. Finally we stumbled on a near-perfect match, and agreed that it was a juvenile king rail (Rallus elegans), a bird new to our experience, what birders call a life-record.

Though our rail looked only about eight inches long, an adult king rail can be over twice as large, and plump, as rails go. A robust, full-grown king rail is a picture of elegance, with black-and-brown bantam-chicken-like scalloped feathers set against a russet breast. The king rail’s closest relative, the clapper rail (Rallus longirostris), similar in color but with a pale blue breast, prefers salt marshes to the freshwater habitat of the king rail. Both birds are resident in New York State, but don’t range far from the Atlantic coast. Both rails are becoming rarer. Loss of high-quality marshes supporting the breeding of these rails is cited as the main threat to their survival. The presence of a young rail like the one we saw shows that the Hudson Valley still has areas of marshland where these rails breed.

Sometimes staying land-bound can bring you as close to the watery realms of swamps and marshes and their resident animals, as a canoe or kayak trek across open water and into secluded back corners can. Try it sometime. You’ll be surprised.