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Clapper Rails

Dear Bird Folks,

In some of your recent columns you have told people where they can see certain birds, including loons and Purple Martins. What about rails? Do we ever get rails around here and if so, where can I see them?

– Tom, Brewster, MA


Yes, we do, and good luck, Tom,

We most certainly have rails on the Cape, but seeing these super-reclusive birds is another story. Rails are basically the Greta Garbos of the bird world. Only, unlike Ms. Garbo, rails aren’t cloistered in a swanky Manhattan high-rise, protected by security guards. They dwell in soggy, inaccessible marshes, protected by something even better than security guards…mosquitoes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, rails are rather odd birds, looking half like a big sandpiper, half like a small heron and half like a lost chicken. As their name suggests, they have rather thin bodies (“skinny as a rail”), which allows them to slip through dense marsh vegetation. They also tend to be weak flyers, often getting blown off course during migration. But they have strong legs and would rather walk, or run, than fly. The most common of the four rail species that may breed on Cape Cod is the diminutive Virginia Rail. And the best place (in theory) that I know of to see a Virginia Rail is in North Truro. Over the years, I’ve seen at least a dozen photos of this rail, but despite my many attempts, I’ve never seen the bird myself. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, Tom. Here’s the lowdown.

The Truro rail hotspot is on High Head Road, which is directly off of Rt. 6, and immediately south of Pilgrim Lake (now called “East Harbor” for some reason). Right after turning onto High Head Road, you will come to a small bridge. Cross the bridge, pull over and park. On both sides of the road are wetlands. The rail(s) lives in these wetlands. That’s all the advice I have for you. Now you are on your own. Good luck.

In the spring, one of the best places to see migrating warblers is in Provincetown’s Beech Forest. (I know it seems as if I’m changing the subject, but I’m not.) Like many birders, I routinely get up early and make the long drive north in hopes of seeing these colorful migrants. This year I got up extra early because I wanted to stop in Truro and perhaps finally get a glimpse of the legendary rail. I arrived at 6:30 AM and immediately heard rails calling. I just had to be patient and eventually (I thought) one of the rails would wander out into the open. As I waited I saw ducks, kingfishers, herons, sandpipers and even loons flying overhead, but alas, no rails. Later in the day I ran into a veteran birder and asked him for advice. He told me to get there “earlier.” Earlier? That’s not what I wanted to hear, but decided to give it a shot. The next morning, I arrived at 6:01 and again, I heard the rails. They were producing a sharp and repeated, “kidick, kidick” sound, which should have helped me locate at least one of them. It didn’t. So, the next morning I arrived even earlier, this time at 5:59. I realize I was technically only two minutes earlier than the day before, but it was the best I could do. Did the two minutes make a difference? No, they didn’t. Once again, the rails stayed true to form and remained hidden. Sigh! Eventually, warbler migration began to wind down and I stopped making the early morning drives to Provincetown/Truro. Instead, I focused on the birds closer to home, so I could actually get to work on time…for a change.

fFort Hill in Eastham is my go-to place for birds whenever I have a few minutes to spare. One morning last week I was at Fort Hill photographing an Orchard Oriole, when I heard a strange sound coming from the marsh behind me. It sounded like a rail, but it wasn’t making the same sound the Truro birds were making. This was more of a “kek, kek, kek” sound. It started slowly, but quickly became faster, like a Geiger counter in the old sci-fi movies. I forgot about the oriole and focused on the marsh. Unfortunately, a wall of honeysuckle blocked my view, but the bird was close, really close. The calls became so loud I could actually feel their vibrations. I managed to find a break in the bushes and peered into the marsh below. From my new observation spot I could clearly see the bird that was making the sound and it wasn’t a Virginia Rail. It was better than that. It turned out to be the Virginia Rail’s much larger cousin, a Clapper Rail. OMG! Clapper Rails are rare birds around here. They spend most of their time in coastal marshes farther south, and now one was calling about twenty feet from me. (In your face, Virginia Rails!) I managed to snap a few blurry pics, just before the bird slipped back into the vegetation and wasn’t seen again, but I didn’t care. My Cape Cod rail drought was over. And I made it to work on time. What a day!

Yes, the Cape does have rails, Tom. And now that I’m an expert on the subject (I’ve seen a total of one), I feel I can give you proper advice. The first thing to do is learn their calls and routinely visit local marshes, especially at high tide, when the incoming water forces the birds out of hiding. If you hear them call, stake out the area and hope one ventures into view. And regardless of my bad experience, you should try High Head Rd. The birds are definitely there and it’s an easy place to find. I suggest you get there early in the morning, perhaps around 5:58. But don’t bother arriving at 5:59. I’ve already tried that and it’s much too late.