I went searching for a yellow rail this morning. Naturally, it wasn't there. The bird had been reported from the Lincoln Park Bird Sanctuary on Friday morning. It was hanging around the larger of the two ponds along the eastern edge of the sanctuary.
The yellow rail is a famously elusive bird, one that many people who have been birding for years have never seen. Yellow rails live in places that are wet but not wet enough to support cattails. They like sedge meadows and wet prairies and even hay fields where the vegetation is not quite so tall and dense as it is in cattail marshes.
They live very quietly down in those grasses. They stay on the ground almost all the time. They fly only to escape danger, and even then very reluctantly. There are stories of dogs running them down because the birds would not leave the ground.
We have six species of rails in North America. They all live in wet places with dense vegetation, and they all have some interesting adaptations to their habitat. They are, of course, very skinny, which helps them move through the sedges or cattails easily and unobtrusively. Their short wings are flexible and they have a claw at the bend of the wing so they can grab onto stems as they slip along. The general motion must be something like the way monkeys travel through the trees, hanging onto branches with all four limbs. Rails all have big feet with long toes that help keep them from sinking into the mud.
While checking some facts on yellow rails in the Encyclopedia of North American Birds, I came across this intriguing note. Under the heading "Incubation," it said, "Period of [incubation] and age when young first fly unknown." This is a major indication of just how elusive yellow rails are. Incubation period and the process of development in the young are both very basic pieces of life-history information, but nobody has ever been able to observe yellow rails closely enough to gather this information. Even the eating habits of the species are poorly known, but we can say they are omnivores, eating insects and snails along with seeds, grasses, and leaves.
Yellow rails precipitated a major controversy in the pages of Birding magazine awhile back. The magazine is published by the American Birding Association, and the ruckus originated following the publication of an article describing a field trip taken by 70 people at the 1988 ABA convention in Duluth. All 70 of these eager birders, all carrying flashlights, had waded into a marsh around 11 PM and located a yellow rail by sound. Yellow rail calls sound like somebody banging two pebbles together. The 70 formed a large circle around the bird and then closed in like a tightening noose until the bird flew up. As it tried to fly out of the circle, one of the birders actually reached up and caught it by hand. The bird could then be admired by everyone and even photographed before being released.
The story inspired a pile of angry letters, including one from an agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who suggested that the birders had violated the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act by harassing and capturing the bird. One writer called the actions of the Yellow Rail 70 "outrageous, totally unacceptable, and unethical," and the consensus seemed to be that this was a prime example of birders letting their lust to see a rare and elusive bird cloud their judgment.
My dog flushed the only yellow rail I ever saw. This was about 15 years ago. I was walking her one morning along the lake south of Belmont Harbor, when this strange-looking little bird flew out of the grass right before her nose. I saw the white patches on the wings right away. They are the definitive mark for this species. It landed about 20 feet away in some very short grass and obligingly posed for me for a couple of minutes. It looked like a small chicken that had been put together by a committee. Its feet were too big and it walked as if its limbs might start falling off at any moment.
Apparently, nobody saw those definitive white wing patches on the bird at the sanctuary. When I got home from the park, I called the Chicago Audubon birding hot line (708-671-1522) and learned that the bird had hung around until Sunday morning, but expert opinion had decided upon further review that it was actually an immature sora and not a yellow rail at all. Soras are rails too, but they are much more common and easily seen than yellow rails. If you find a sora, you will not get birders coming from miles around to get a look at it. And you could certainly never get 70 birders to wade into a marsh in the middle of the night in hopes of finding a sora. I wish I had had a chance to get to the sanctuary over the weekend. My guess is that the putative yellow rail drew quite a crowd.
The hot line also told me that the big blast of cold air that passed through here last week had brought a host of interesting migrants with it. A lark bunting had been seen near McCormick Place. This is a bird of the short-grass and mixed-grass prairies, and its usual range extends no farther east than Nebraska.
Raptors were moving through in large numbers. More than 2,000 broad-winged hawks passed one location in the southern suburbs one morning, and three golden eagles had been reported from locations in the western suburbs. The broad-winged migration is an annual spectacle, but golden eagle sightings are a special treat. They do nest north of Lake Superior and pass through here on migration, but even active birders can go years without seeing one.
I added peregrine falcon to my backyard list last Friday. The bird flew right over the garage, passing no more than 20 feet above my head. With the Tennessee warbler I had seen the previous day, this gave me 64 species in my own personal backyard list. The rules for my backyard list are that it doesn't actually have to be in the backyard as long as I can see it from there or from the house. Thus, I have sandhill cranes seen from my office window flying south over the river a few blocks east of me and common goldeneyes in the air space over the yard, but neither of these birds is ever likely to land in the backyard.
One of the most interesting birds of the year is the Pacific loon that has been hanging out in Diamond Lake in Mundelein since early this summer. This bird obviously got itself way off course during its spring migration. Pacific loons winter along the west coast, and they breed on tundra lakes in Canada and Alaska. But somehow this individual ended up in northern Illinois instead of the Yukon.
The Pacific loon was until recently regarded as just a population of the Arctic loon. Research showed that the two forms did not breed together, so the Pacific loon was granted species status. There had been only one previous sighting of an Arctic loon in the Chicago area, and that was in 1949. This year's bird presents a major opportunity for listers. You can add a bird to your Illinois list, and many experienced birders whose North American lists already included Arctic loon could now add the Pacific.
The cooperative attitude of this bird--hanging about for months on end--has allowed lots of people to see it. Some have even videotaped it.
I've been spending what little birding time I have had along the lakefront. We have had some good days for warblers. Twice I have topped a dozen species in a morning at the Magic Hedge at Montrose. Warblers in the obscure plumage they wear in fall are always a challenge to identify. The field marks are more ambiguous now than in spring, and for many species you have to see several marks in order to make a sure identification. Of course, the birds won't always show you several marks, so it takes concentrated effort to see through leaves and other obstructions to discover, for example, what color the feathers under the tail are.
We are nearing the end of this year's warbler migration. This morning I saw eight yellow-rumped warblers. This species is always the latest fall migrant--and the earliest spring migrant--so when the yellow-rumps start showing up in numbers, you know it's time to stop looking up into the trees and start looking down at the grass. Sparrow time is here.
White-throated sparrows were around in substantial numbers at the sanctuary this day, along with a few song sparrows and the first dark-eyed juncos I have seen this season. These sparrows are all LBJs in birding lingo--little brown jobs. They were named sparrows by European settlers who noted their resemblance to the house sparrows of the Old World. We can expect about 19 species to pass through here. They are ground-feeding birds, mostly of open country --although the white-throated sparrow lives in second-growth woodlands. They will be centers of attention for the next few weeks. Then the waterfowl will move through and signal the end of the fall migration season.