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!