One of the more exciting birds this summer in this little corner of North Carolina is undoubtedly the King Rails that have been regularly reported in a still-water back-arm of Jordan Lake in Chatham County, just south of where I live. The species shows up from time to time in the Piedmont, usually taking up in some random swampy ditch or wet meadow one year and not returning for several after, but this singular spot has been on the radar of many would-be rail watchers for a while, and those intrepid birders with a kayak on call have had better luck than others at flushing one or two out every year on the spring bird count, or hearing the species’ frog-like croaking in the dense reeds while the birds remain unseen. This year, though, the birds have seemed to be venturing much closer to the road than usual, and some birders have been lucky enough to spot what is easily the most difficult (I will broker no argument) of the local breeding birds to get a look at, some even coming away with passable, even if hardly Nat Geo quality, photos.
For me, King Rail resides in life bird limbo. I’ve heard the species a handful of times in Florida, but I’ve never actually put eyes to one. As such, and according to “Nate’s Rules of Listing”, I don’t count it on my official life list. It remains on a provisional list – happily one that has shortened in recent years – along with Chuck-will’s-widow. The two species I’ve heard but never seen. My busy spring kept me from making the short trip down to have a look, but I finally had a few hours Sunday to see if the rails would be calling in the early morning, and I left to attempt to make that provisional list a bit lonelier for the big Chuck.
The White Oak Creek flows into Jordan Lake on the southeast corner of the reservoir. If you were driving south on highway 751 you’d probably miss it if you weren’t specifically looking for the ghost forest of dead and decaying trees of no longer determinable origin that marks the area where the rising water swamped the woods here. There was once a small heron rookery you could see from the road but those birds have long since disappeared to nest elsewhere. In their place are a pair of Osprey nest, both no more than a half mile from each other and, if they’re within eyeshot of me no doubt the birds have accepted their proximity. Both nests had chicks nearly ready to leave the nest, and both had parents perched nearby screaming at the top of their lungs to encourage that first flight.
In fact, the Osprey ruckus was almost overwhelming enough to swamp out the calls I had come to hear, the subtle clack-clack-clack of rail voices wafting from the reeds. Every railish call turned out to be nothing more than tricksy Cricket Frogs who responded to my attempts at playback with an enthusiasm I did not expect from amphibians. And the Osprey, apparently deparate to get those chicks out of the nest, had grown to eight strong, no doubt augmented by young birds from parts around the lake looking to steal a meal from the parents who had caught a fish and now perched tantalizingly close to the still nest-bound chicks.
And that unfolding drama was fascinating and all, but the prospect of a life bird had me ready for action. I was wearing sandals, the swamp did not look that deep, so I gently waded in, edging myself into the water at about knee-height and walking towards the most railish looking patch of rushes. When I was about 30 feet out, the bottom rather abruptly began to give way. Laden as I was with optics and electronics, I quickly retreated, hitting the playback one more time for good measure and succeeded in nothing but working up a whole new corner of the Cricket Frog community.
Oh well, by this point the resident Red-headed Woodpeckers had risen, and decided to take this Osprey invasion into their own hands. So with a series of chatters and feigned attacks they bagan what was destined to be a battle royale the entire day.
I was not able to stick around. Following my aborted swamp stomp, I headed back to the edge and sat, hoping that a King Rail may wander past. A longshot, but I had no other choice. In the end, no luck. I’ll just have to wait a bit longer, then.
That reminds me that I never made an attempt at the King Rails in New Jersey this year, which bugs me because I don’t even have them as a provisional bird on my life list.
Hey Nate – if you were looking in the swamp with the Osprey nest, that’s the wrong spot. White Oak Creek is up the road a ways, and much more of a pain in the ass to get to (loose rocks almost killed me). The good news is the rails are very vocal. There’s a spot on the north side of the bridge that I bet you could wade through the creek, and the rails sounded about 50 feet in. Never would show themselves though…
@Robert – Oh jeez. Well, that could have been a problem…