Monday, October 19, 2009

Yellow Rail!

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and spending a lot of time at Seney National Wildlife Refuge during the early days of my wildife career, I was lucky enough to work on part of the ongoing Yellow Rail research at Seney. Yellow Rails are often considered the most difficult bird to "see" in North America (in the right habitats during the breeding season hearing one is quite a bit easier). However this ultra secretive species is very much an "avian mouse" almost impossible to flush and even more impossible to see as they navigate underneath the tall grass and sedges of their marshes and meadow homes. Because of this they are almost always considered amongst the "most wanted" birds in North America by birders. They breed locally across a broad swath of sedge meadows and wet prairie in Canada and the farthert north parts of the U.S. and winter primarily along the Gulf Coast.

In recent years birders have begun to discover certain locations where Yellow Rails seem to concentrate during migration. One of the prime places for this has been Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in far southeastern Oklahoma. A former rice plantation that in recent years has been converted into a marsh complex that is one of the best birding locations in Oklahoma.

So in hope of spotting some of the rare and beautiful Yellow Rails that I had known so well at Seney NWR I found myself dragging a rope across acres of wet fields on a beautiful October morning. One of the few ways to get the notoriously Yellow Rails to show themselves is to drag a rope with attached weighted bottles in a line with a large group of people behind it. If you are lucky perhaps you will get a brief look at a tiny dark rail with white patches on the back of their wings flush in front of you.

Sort of like this guy in the above photograph.

Some lucky birders watching the Yellow Rail fly above the wet fields of Red Slough WMA.

And if you are very lucky you get to see this happen not once or twice but five times in one morning!

Other birds seen on a Yellow Rail drag at Red Slough include quite a few Sedge Wrens and LeConte's Sparrows.

And if you are very very lucky. You actually spot a Yellow Rail walking amongst the grasses right ahead of you, where you can watch him and photograph this "shadow bird" in all its secretive glory!


  1. !!! methinks that years of tromping at Anahuac without a camera was what helped me see them consistently, but I'm definitely not brave enough to try with a camera (the theory being that if you leave it at home, the birds will cooperate, of course).

  2. Vince, great posts. I must say I am jealous. The Yellow Rail is the only species of rail that I don't have for Oklahoma, except for Clapper for obvious reasons. I am thouroughly enjoying your posts. Keep it up, and consider staying in Oklahoma!