Wednesday, June 28, 2017

I Got Rails, Rails Around My Feet

The bay area is blessed with numbers of a couple very special rail species - Ridgway's and Black. Luckily, Ridgway's aren't nearly as elusive as Black Rail, which I've still never actually seen (they slip in and out of other dimensions at will, it is known). One day last winter I was out in the saltmarsh during a particularly high tide, and the Ridgway's were forced out of their usual haunts. Several rails had their souls stolen on that fateful day. Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, CA.

Behold the peerless grace and unmatched power of this ultra-efficient flying machine.

Though rails are famously good dispersers and accomplished migrants, this bird did little to convince me it was capable of dispersing more than six feet.  Here it is falling out of the sky. Have some dignity, rail.

Ridgway's Rails aren't afraid to go for a fact, there is little that they are afraid of. Their courage compensates for their wraithlike, shadow-dwelling Black Rail relatives nicely.

This is a weird juxtaposition. Those are 2 Ridgway's Rails aquatically convening in the foreground, which is an odd thing to see in and of itself. More noticeable is San Quentin Prison in the background, which houses a great many inmates on death row.  It was also the venue for one of my favorite live albums, Johnny Cash's At San Quentin (yes, I do think it is better than At Folsom Prison).

I wasn't at Corte Madera for rails though, what really lured me there was this SONG SPARROW.

Just kidding. I can robin-stroke with the best of them, but even I cannot pass off such bullshit to my treasured readers. I was there for the Nelson's Sparrows, obvi.

Sweet, sweet Nelson's Sparrow. A regular wintering bird in many marshes up and down the state (though you are overdue for another, Humboldt), yet rare enough to cause a lot of birders to chase. I suspect they are also regular winter visitors to parts of Baja, but incredibly this species has yet to be eBirded from anywhere in Mexico.

Who will be the first to eBird a Nelson's from Mexico? They have been recorded in the country, just not eBirded yet.

Nelson's, as anyone who has seen one knows, is one of the best sparrows in existence. They are mild-mannered to a fault, inhabit very interesting habitats, and of course are marked boldly with artisinal streaks and stripes. No one would describe their song as inspirational, but few birds are perfect. A high quality county bird to be sure.

On another day, I met up with Matt Sabatine and had good luck with the Harris's Sparrow that was wintering at the Las Gallinas Ponds. Like the Nelson's Sparrow, the Harris's had some mellowing ochre tones in the face that were hard to resist, not to mention a comforting plumpness.

This Cinnamon Teal would not lift it's head up, even though I hurled numerous rocks at it (like any good photog would). This made Matt very uncomfortable, though I have no idea why. In the end I accidentally crippled it with a piece of cement and all I got was this lousy photo to show for it.

Kidding, kidding...I don't really consider myself a photographer.

Let's wrap up this post with Bufflehead, because Bufflehead.


  1. First-class recordings, superbly photographed
    Greetings Frank

  2. Nothing beats going after rails on a crazy terrain...

    Beautiful shots of Nelson's sparrow, btw. Nimble little guy. Hope to see one myself some day.


  3. Sadly Ridgway's Rail numbers have collapsed in San Francisco Bay even though listed as "endangered." Starting in 2005, a well-intentioned program to remove non-native and hybrid Spartina (cordgrass) from San Francisco Bay resulted in a decline in California Ridgway’s Rails by at least 50% with particularly steep losses from 2007 to 2008. This in the name of a "recovery plan" for San Francisco Bay which prioritized removing supposedly invasive plants at the expense of the rails that depend on cordgrass.

    1. First, thanks for keeping that pesky "e" out of the middle of Ridgway.

      Real quick though, this is not so simple. Ridgway's Rails do not "depend" on invasive spartina, they did not evolve with this plant and don't need it, and are recovering in Bay marshes thanks to restoration of tidal marshes, including planting native cordgrass. Additionally, our Bay supports massive numbers of shorebirds, which are species of importance and concern, and shorebirds depend on the mudflats that the invasive non-native spartina infests, altering the hydrology of the Bay.

    2. Unfortunately the picture you paint of shorebirds occupying areas where "invasive" Spartina has been removed is not supported by any useful data. There have been no shorebird surveys at places like the SamTrans marsh where over 60 Ridgway's Rails used to live to see if the restored mudflat is actually suitable for shorebirds. My casual observations are that it is not. It used to be a healthy salt marsh filled with rails and other birds. It is now a sterile mudflat with nothing of benefit to show.

      Unfortunately the areas that you are planting with native Spartina are not doing very well as far as I can tell. In particular I see no evidence that native Spartina can or will survive at Alameda South Shore where another healthy salt marsh supporting large numbers of rails was destroyed in the name of conservation.

      It is true that Ridgway's Rails did not evolve with non-native and hybrid Spartina in San Franciso Bay but once it became available they moved into it in large numbers, often preferring it to the native Spartina.

      Ridgway's Rail is in desperate need of a Five-Year endangered species review. The existing plan which includes many other species offers nothing in the way of an actual recovery. It warns about short-term losses caused by Spartina remove, but offers no concrete steps on how to bring numbers back up to historic levels.

      But this is not the best place to debate this issue. If anybody wants the facts, I recommend this:

  4. Rails and Nelson's makes a great combo post. I really enjoyed this since I had a near parallel experience in MN last week getting King Rail (mega here) and Nelson's Sparrow lifers at one location.