On 26 January 2012, my first full day in Florida for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, I had a mission for the evening. My mission was simple in theory – to see, or at least hear, a Black Rail.  But, in practice, the mission became much more difficult. Black Rails are among the most secretive of North American birds and are the smallest of our rails.  They are often described as “mouselike” and the adjective seems to fit.  Though it’s not like I would really know because I still have never seen nor heard one.

How did this sad turn of events come about?  How could I have gone on a field trip dedicated specifically to encountering this single, singular species and come back with the bird unseen, unheard, and unticked? Let’s start back at the beginning of the trip and see what could have gone wrong.

The folks from the festival who signed up for the Black Rail field trip for 26 January met up in front of the community college and made car-pooling arrangements for the trip to St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge which is located on the north side of Route 50 just west of Titusville. The refuge, which was created to protect the now extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow, is not normally open to the public, which helps keep the rails and other wildlife from being unduly bothered by people. As part of the Black Rail field trip we not only had access but were accompanied by Mike Legare, the lead biologist for Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which administers St. Johns NWR as well. He actually did graduate work studying Black Rails that involved having to catch and put transmitters on them so in terms of having a guide who knows what he is talking about we really couldn’t ask for more.

We were pleased to hear that the trip the night before had heard Black Rails and that it had been years since a group hadn’t at least heard a bird. As we piled into the back of the large pickup truck and the haywagon that we would use to make our way through the refuge we were buzzing with anticipation as Black Rail would be a lifer for most of us on the trip.

The ride out netted us a typical assortment of Florida birds with nothing particularly outstanding. As we waited the magic hour that perfectly combined darkness and light during which rails like to call we were pleased to see a Bobcat cross the trail behind us.  Though it was distant it was still a welcome sight. For me, at least, it was a life mammal!

Bobcat Lynx rufus

Eventually we walked our way out into the marsh along a narrow and heavily rutted path, accompanied by chattering Sedge Wrens, and listened for rails. While we quietly waited for Laterallus jamaicensis to call we didn’t have much to do but look at the habitat and watch the sun head down.  So that’s what we did while we strained our ears to hear our quarry.

Black Rail habitat both above and below

sunset at St. Johns NWR both above and below

Mike tried tapes. We tried moving out into the marsh and listened some more. Mike tried tapes again. The birds would not call. As it got darker the mosquitoes came out and the birds still did not call. Eventually, we gave up and headed out of the marsh, back to the truck and rode out of the refuge. We were a subdued group, bummed out by our dip, and unable to find the Short-eared Owl that the group the day before had spotted on their ride out of the refuge.

I was not amused to hear that the group the next day heard several Black Rails calling.

10,000 Birds is a Scrub Jay-level sponsor of the 15th Annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.