Clapper Rail by Alex Forsythe

I have a confession to make. When I was driving to NASA, I had a lot of doubts. Would the people be friendly? Would I enjoy the work? Would I see any interesting birds? Fortunately, the answer to all of those questions was a resounding “YES!”, and my first indication that things would be very different here was this particular bird.

I have seen many rails in my birding adventures (and I’ve heard even more), but I’m accustomed to seeing rails in fleeting moments. They usually dart out from behind the reeds just long enough for me to grab my camera and capture a photo of a tail as the bird darts back into the reeds. They’re loud birds, so I know they’re nearby, but they also understand that they’re on the menu for many species, so they prefer to stay out of sight. This Clapper Rail, on the other hand, broke that mold. In fact, he seemed to enjoy having his picture taken.

I heard this bird while driving along with my windows down. I found a place to park then stood alongside the road, hoping to get my customary 5-second glimpse of the rail. To my surprise, this bird stayed out in the open for about fifteen minutes! He saw me, but he decided his breakfast was a far more pressing matter than worrying about his safety; I clearly posed no threat. In fact, he decided to move closer to me, far from the protection of the reeds, in pursuit of the crabs scuttling about in the mud. After a little while, he sang for me several times. “Sang” is a generous word; the song or call of a Clapper Rail is just a series of clacking noises. I recorded a video of his singing and posted it here:

His song, appearance, and location made him easy to identify. Just a few short years ago, the Clapper Rails were divided into three groups: Clapper, Ridgway’s and Mangrove. Ridgway’s is found only on the Pacific coast, and the Mangrove is found in South America. Clapper Rails look similar to the King Rail and the Virginia Rail, but both the King and Virginia are more reddish. The Virginia also has more obvious gray cheek patches.

Since they live in saltwater marshes, Clapper Rails are able to drink saltwater. Of course, the marshes often flood with the tides and storms, and saltwater often covers the nest. With most birds, such events would spell certain doom for the nest, but the eggs of Clapper Rails are designed to remain viable even if they are submerged in saltwater.

This unusually friendly Clapper Rail was one of the first birds I encountered as I was exploring around my new summer home. With his song and demeanor, the rail made me feel welcome and excited about the birding adventures I would have here. And the summer has only just begun!


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