Bad Day To Be A Clapper Rail

Clapper Rail Photos by Ed Solan

Posted 6/04/07
by Paul Kerlinger
Outdoors Editor

Cape May, NJ - With tides lapping at the road on Nummy Island and a stiff wind from the northeast, I wondered if we would see much in the way of birds.

At least the rain had stopped. The tide was so high that Nummy Island was all but under water. There were few places where there was a semblance of dry land, with the exception of a few hummocks and a narrow strip of marsh grass.

It turned out to be great for birding. The shorebirds were all clustered on the higher ground near the road. Clapper Rails were readily visible as they walked out in the open.

You usually hear Clapper Rails, not see them. They are found in the taller grass well out on the marsh, but here they were within 30-40 feet of us.

We watched them appear and disappear, hearing them complain about the super-high tides that drove them from the expanses of the marsh.

Without warning, we noticed eratic flight by a Great Black-backed Gull. It was flying about 15 feet above the marsh and water, carrying what, at first, looked like a shorebird.

Seeing it through binoculars we realized that it was not a shorebird. It was actually a Clapper Rail putting up a furious fight!

The gull was carrying the rail in its bill, but a stiff wind gave the Clapper Rail the edge it needed. The Rail broke free and fell into the watery marsh.

After the gull followed it down and pounced on it feet first. pecking the poor rail for about 10 seconds, the gull abandoned its prey, and flew away. We couldn't determine if the rail lived through the ordeal.

These attacks are just a fact of life if you're a rail. I've heard of Great Blue Herons going after rails in a similar manner on the edge of San Francisco Bay.

The herons simply walked along the dry edge of the marsh looking for food when they encountered hapless little Black Rails attempting to stay just above the tideline.

No wonder, then, that rails are so shy and secretive. They know that, in a nanosecond, they could become a larger bird's dinner.

To see a Clapper Rail for yourself, go to a place like Nummy Island or Jake's Landing and listen for their distinctive kek-kek-kek call. Or, simply jump aboard The Skimmer and you stand a good chance of seeing or hearing one.

Ed Solan, who photographed the rails, is an avid birder and photographer from East Fishkill, New York. He is a regular visitor to Cape May.

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