Date: 4/11/17 8:32 am From: Frank Enders (via carolinabirds Mailing List) <carolinabirds...> Subject: Jerking undertail coverts allow view of calling King Rail
The King Rail at Beaverdam Swamp continued calling last night just after twilight (but, full moon)--don't know when it stopped---but from a spot seemingly farther back from the road.
This morning, by 6:15 AM, the bird was calling, seemingly from the same spot, which turns out to be perhaps 100 yards from the road. I had told my wife I might be home by 7, just wanting to try out my leaky waders, but got home only at 8:15.
This "marsh" opens up to at least 5 acres downstream, might best be called a "flowage" as in the North Woods, a diffuse area of moving water, with probably beaver channels, scattered sapling trees (many chewed, mostly willow, only one , intact, young cypress noted), little cattail, and what seems to be a mat of mainly smartweed. Fortunately, I had footing at about midthigh depth, which is what led me to be lured out to the persistently calling rail. I feared the bird might just be a migrant, which is what impelled me to check on it. Lots of marsh gas, and I would be fearful if in alligator country.
To get to the marsh, I first went straight through an incredible "impenetrable" canebrake of mostly blackberry, some grape, Smilax and maple, moist "dry land", which I would expect woodcock to use----I was grateful to have, at the last minute taken a pair of leather work gloves and a heavy sweater. This canebrake separated (from the main marsh) the roadside flooded ditch of sedge/bullrushes in which the rail called the previous morning; everywhere there was scattered dead wood and (sorry to say) trash from flooding which must be regular, at least semiannually. I did worry about degrading the habitat, but no such problem in the deepwater marsh. I think I produced a bear trail through the canebrake, maybe 80 feet long, heading toward the calling rail. One had better bypass the canebrake, in this case having a wadeable marsh or streams.
Looking out across the marsh and stepping gingerly onto the morass, in my wimpy way, and thinking to not drive the rail farther out, I realized the bird was at the edge of a farther, but not so scary canebrake. It took me a good hour of trying to move to the bird, following it as it seemed to be going here and there, and thinking the call was somehow ventriloquial.
I kept staring at the edge, trying to make out the "songster", and occasionally trying to bring it to me by imitating it, or doing my better Clapper Rail call, and--more impressive to the bird--my "wucka-wucka-wucka" Virginia Rail call, I even tried squeaking or peeping, but the best I could do was to get the bird to start calling "zsek-zsek-zsek-zsek" again when it became silent. I also "wasted" time looking at other birds which were about Green and GB Heron, etc. Found a lovely "Green Tree Frog" on a brown tree trunk.
I was moving into the sun, which made it hard to believe I could spot a dark bird in deep shadows, so I tried to outflank the bird, sneakily, slowly, to "drive" it into a point of canebrake. (I used to run zigzag through a cattail marsh --sometimes snow-covered--using this maneuver to force the resident Virginia Rail to flush over open water from the tip of the point.) The bird just kept doing its thing, possibly ignoring me, and I was not trying to be noticed.
In the end, this did not matter. Seeing the bird was finally incredibly simple. I was trying to see breaks in the canebreak, thinking also the bird might move from one thick spot to another, giving a glimpse. I had been within 30 feet of it for some time, and now perhaps 20 feet.
I saw movement, and what gave the bird away was a sort of rhythmic pumping movement of its black-and-white undertail coverts as it called. (Again, one of Frank's efforts to have a key fieldmark.) The rest of the bird was not that buffy nor rusty, and all in shadow on gray-brown soil and weathered bases of plants.
The bird looked like one of my chickens which had gone feral (except longer-legged and thin), moving surefootedly and athletically, in a partial gap between thick areas of cane. It was again invisible in less than 2 minutes.
While I had examined the roadside ditch for rail tracks, the lightfooted tread of this bird persuaded me not to check out the spot it had walked, knowing the soil was but damp, not soft enough. Another key is that this bird is a wood rail, the Clapper being a marshhen judging from previous winter sighting of King by me, locations from which each calls, and the old Bent's Life History as seen on Birdzilla. I had been thinking the King would be more colorful, on a buffy background of cattail and grass.
My apologies for going on, but it was so easy, once the bird was at all visible, due to the undertail coverts "flashing" in the gloom.