In search of a holy rail
A report of a rare bird captures the attention of birders within a few hours drive of the observation. So in late May, when a black rail was reported just north of Capon Bridge in Hampshire County, birders flocked to the site.
Few saw it. Some heard it. Several even reported hearing the bird before they got out of the car.
Black rails are small, reclusive birds found in wetlands and wet meadows. Measuring about 6 inches long and just more than one ounce in weight, black rails are the smallest rails in North America. They're about the size of a downy woodpecker.
Most rails are notoriously difficult to see. They usually stay hidden in dense wetland vegetation and seldom fly. This is particularly true for black rails. And when you consider its small size, seeing a black rail is difficult.
But with almost daily reports since late May and a trip to D.C. to see my 6-week-old grandson looming, I decided to go for it. Maybe I'd get lucky. So when I got close to Winchester, Va., last week, I took an 18-mile detour to Capon Bridge.
I arrived where the bird had previously been reported shortly after 6:15 p.m., thanks to directions from other birders. Black rails are most active late in the day and after dark, so an evening arrival seemed ideal. The sky on this day was heavily overcast.
Because black rails spend most their time hidden in dense vegetation, I did not expect to see one, but I hoped to hear one sing. I'd been studying a recording on the way to the site, and its "Kik, kik, kerr" song was firmly imprinted on my brain.
I parked on a gravel pulloff on the east side of the road and waited. Just west of the road, a narrow, wet meadow ran between the road and a hillside dominated by mature autumn olives and a few big junipers.
For almost two hours a variety of birds entertained me, but I found no evidence of a black rail. Three aggressive mockingbirds defended territories along the road, and bluebirds, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, field sparrows, tree swallows, and starlings intermittently perched on the overhead power lines. The most interesting song I heard was the short trill of a gray tree frog.
Finally at about 8:20, I heard it: "Kik, kik, kerr." Again, and again. Three times it called. I was thrilled. A new species for my life list!
As I recalled the song, however, I realized it hadn't come from the meadow. It came from the hillside. The habitat was all wrong. There's no way a black rail was singing from the trees on the hillside.
As reality and disappointment set in, I realized I had been fooled by a mockingbird. Since the rail had already been in the area for a few weeks, one of the mockers, which are excellent mimics, had already perfected the song. That the phrase was repeated three times gave more credence to the notion that a mockingbird was singing because mockingbirds usually repeat each phrase three or more times.
Of course, this was all speculation. There is no way to be sure my interpretation was correct. But no way could I count what I had heard as a life bird.
Shortly before 9 p.m., as I prepared to leave for my daughter's house, I heard it again. "Kik, kik, kerr." Three times it called. It was too dark to tell where the sound originated.
Mockingbirds not only repeat phrases three or more times, they also frequently sing at night. So odds are it was the mockingbird again.
Birding is a self-regulated pastime. There's no way to know with certainty that bird I heard was not a black rail. But neither can I be certain it was. If I cheat, I only cheat myself. So it doesn't make my life list; not even with an asterisk.
I'm disappointed that I couldn't claim a life bird, but it had been a pleasant evening. And the best part about not finding a life bird is knowing that there will be another chance to chase this particular holy rail.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, West Virginia 26033 or by email at email@example.com.