Thinking Outside the Box

Juvenile Yellow Rail, Milford Pt, CT

Yesterday this happened.

I was cleaning the house when a text from Stefan Martin came through to say that a Yellow Rail was sitting in view next to the Coastal Audubon Center at Milford, CT.

Holy Christ! I was immediately in the car, lickety-split, bobbing and weaving (safely) down I-95 to Milford Pt. Why the excitement you ask?

This is the overview provided by Cornell University on their “All About Birds” website: A tiny marsh bird that lives its life concealed by grassy vegetation, the Yellow Rail is one of the hardest birds to see in North America. Perfectly camouflaged in complex patterns of black, brown, yellow, and white, Yellow Rails run as quickly as rodents through dense marsh vegetation. They rarely take flight, but when they do they reveal white patches in the wing.

Yellow Rails are likely annual passage migrants in CT but are essentially invisible transients by virtue of their behavior. Seeing one is a mythical challenge for most birders – many seasoned birders still need this for their life list. Seeing one usually involves a concerted effort; traveling to a specific spot, in a particular habitat, at a predetermined time of year. It may or may not involve milk cartons and rope.

This particular individual had an interesting backstory. It had been found nearby by a local homeowner who found the bird stunned in her yard and, thinking it was a “quail”, brought it to the Audubon Center. It was at that point that the “quail” made a break for it, and exited the box at breakneck speed, landing on the lawn of the coastal center where it had remained in view. I was happy the bird was present. The last “seen” one (a calling bird was found in the spring by Nick Bonomo in the eastern part of the state), was one “in-off” at Milford, many years ago, during a Big Sit. For that bird I had left Lighthouse Pt, and in basically a repeat of the above events, managed a $133 speeding ticket on the way to what was ultimately an empty bush. A bird in the bush is worth two they say – what a load of bollocks!!

Purists at this point will start pontificating on the “countability” factor of this as a valid bird on your list. I had seen Yellow Rails before, so I wasn’t concerned about the ethics of listing. I was just there to enjoy a surreal encounter with a seldom-seen species.

My life bird had been in Texas, flushed from a wet marsh on the gulf coast by 15 birders dragging a rope with a line of empty milk jugs filled with rocks attached to it. The reason for this is that the rumbling cacophony reverberates through the quiet marsh grass, causing these mouse-like rails to take flight, literally jumping onto many a life list in the process. Good deal!

Yellow Rail twitchers

Anyway, regardless that this bird had been described by one birder as being, “been boxed up like a head of lettuce” (thanks Tom Johnson!), it did not detract from the amazing experience of seeing one of these denizens of the marsh in full view. A juvenile, aged by the dull, blackish portions of the bill and barred breast sides, it just sat there quietly. As dusk approached, it didn’t look too healthy. It frequently closed its eyes and a displaced patch of crown feathers hinted at perceived trauma of hitting a window, or some other object, caused us to consider rehabbing it. At dusk, we made an attempt to catch it, but the bird perked up. We decided that it looked healthy enough from the outside, and shepherded it, in a rather comical way, into the nearby marsh edge, where we left it to do what Yellow rails do.

Thanks to Stefan Martin for being the ornithological maitre d and for getting the news out.

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