Tonight, we went to McGregor Marsh, the best spot in the state to find yellow rails. I’ve been many a time before, eventually deciding last summer that someone must be playing a colossal practical joke on me and that those birds weren’t actually there. 😉 Yellow rail are hard to find; in fact, I’d say they’re the most cryptic species of the upper Midwest (and one of the most cryptic on the continent). They hide under sedge meadow cover, very rarely to be seen. Your best shot is to only hear them, and if you really want to, survey protocol encourages the observer to go out past 11pm on moonless nights. A friend who used to survey for them told me that he would go out and not hear anything before 11:30pm, and then return to the same spot in the early morning hours and hear several (but never before mid-June). Another friend and pioneer rail biologist told me that their peak calling time is 2am!
2am is a good time to go. For captures we had better luck on overcast nights, but we heard them regardless
— Auriel Fournier (@RallidaeRule) May 23, 2017
In other words, you know that “snipe hunt” game kids play? If they renamed it “yellow rail hunt” it would be all the more accurate. Given their erratic nocturnal/seasonal pattern of vocalizing, you’re lucky to hear them at all (Eckert 1994). We don’t fully know the rhyme nor reason to their sometimes short vocalizing windows in a given night, or why on some nights they’re not heard at all, even though the conditions seem to be just right. In so many ways, these tiny birds are a mystery.
Last year, I’d go the night after they were heard by someone else, to be met with silence. I’d go in ideal conditions at ideal times, and hear nothing. Not to mention, listening at the ideal spots at this particular scientific & natural area (SNA) means pulling over on an active highway in the wee morning hours and often being moved along by the local cops. Several kind people pulled over asking if I needed assistance, to which I’d try to explain I was just out there listening to the birds. It was awkward and drowsy birding after a nontrivial drive to the middle of nowhere. On top of that, the mosquitoes are hardly kept at bay by bug spray!
A friend of ours heard one a few days ago, and knowing they were probably just back on territory, we decided to try again at the beginning of the season. That ended up being our winning strategy! Like many birds, perhaps they’re eager to establish their territories when they first arrive back, leading to more singing than usual outside their normal hours. This is my guess, since we heard one pipe up just after sunset! I couldn’t believe our good fortune: it was early in the season, still plenty light out, and we weren’t getting eaten alive by biting insects while listening. All of this (most notably, actually hearing the bird) was in stark contrast to my 2017 experiences!
Part of my sharing this story is to illustrate what birding does to a person: yes, I drove over an hour to pull over on a roadside and get eaten alive by insects in the first hours of a new day. Yes, I did this multiple times during the summer, even with such negative reinforcement as many bug bites and having to explain myself to good Samaritan’s who were convinced my car had broken down. Because of my hobby dedication to this species, my hearing the soft and unassuming “tics” in the meadow tonight just made me want to know more. I feared finally hearing it would quench that wondering, but it only inspired it. It makes me want to go and sit on that roadside every night, at the same time and beyond, to find out what happens as the season goes on and as the weather and lunar phase changes. When you have what’s known as a nemesis bird, in my experience, it engenders curiosity. After years of dreaming of hearing a yellow rail in a sedge meadow, I was pleased to find my curiosity largely unsatisfied.
In short: this is why I’m an ornithologist. 🙂
Part 2: The conservation concern
Eckert, Kim R. 1994. A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota.