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Yellow rail [www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/yellow-rail]

Search pays off for secretive yellow rail

The tops of the towering thunderheads to the east were tinged with the first evening colors. The clouds were a mix of contrasting yellows, oranges, whites and slate grays. The marsh was a medley of rich greens dotted here and there with red-winged blackbirds chasing and testing territorial boundaries.

Scattered willows follow a creek that emerges as springs from the base of the Cascades and quickly loses its identity to the marsh. As the light began to fade and the shadows of the Cascades began to lengthen out over the marsh, a Wilson’s snipe lifted off and disappeared into the sky. Soon the winnowing began.

That's when I heard a soft clicking: “Tictic-tictictic.” The calls repeated about six to 10 times and then fell silent. They were so faint it was difficult to pick the sounds out of the cacophony of other marsh sounds. Not far away a second bird responded. Then a third. This continued for about a half hour as the light faded over the marsh of Upper Klamath Lake at Mare’s Egg Spring.

The calls were from one of the least-known birds in North America, the yellow rail. It is a smaller version of the more familiar but still elusive sora and Virginia rail. Because of their secretive habits, we know little about their abundance, breeding habits, how many young they raise or what they eat. They have been likened to mice, scurrying among the short vegetation of wet meadows, rarely flying even when approached to within a few feet, and they are largely silent.

If you look at a range map for the species, they breed across Canada from the prairies of Alberta to Quebec. But if you examine the map more closely you will see the tiniest of spots here in Southern Oregon. The spot is easily dismissed as a printer’s mistake. But the birds are here, a tiny outlying population. Small numbers breed at the north end of Upper Klamath Lake, the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, and Sycan Marsh a few miles to the east. Their numbers may not exceed a couple hundred individuals.

The eastern populations winter along the Gulf Coast, but where our birds winter is something of a mystery. Do they fly over the Rocky Mountains on somewhat unsteady wings to join the others or do they make a more modest trek to closer destinations? There is some evidence they winter in the Sacramento River delta, but we really don’t know.

A year ago I set out to find these reclusive birds but failed. They say you can encourage them to announce themselves by mimicking their call. Just tap small pebbles together. I must have been a curiosity to the locals as I walked along the roads at night tapping rocks together. My activities closely resembled a “snipe hunt” of practical joke fame, but I was serious. It was cold and breezy, and the mosquitoes were thick. My very tolerant wife remained in the car, and the rails remained mute. Both have more sense than me.

Fortunately for me, the weather was better this year, the mosquitoes were fewer, and the rails were more cooperative. The pebbles remained in my pocket, unneeded, and my wife remained at home. Her loss. The sights and sounds of the marshes in Southern Oregon in spring are amazing.

— Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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