Fog curled and rose from the marsh as the sun set. I crouched silently and motionless on the boardwalk while Marsh Wrens trilled nearby and the evening frog chorus tuned up.
On the edge of my vision, a flicker of movement winked at me from between two hummocks of reeds. A piercing screech erupted from beneath the grass, and my breath locked in my chest. Lumpy shadows moved restlessly, then materialized briefly between the two patches.
For a split second, I had a perfect view of a low-slung, hen-like body, deep mottled chestnut in the fading light, a thin orange bill on a smoky gray head, and a blood-red eye surveying me cautiously. I blinked, and the bird vanished into the mist, leaving no proof that it was ever anything more than a product of my imagination.
The bird was a Virginia Rail, a member of a notoriously evasive group of birds. Six species of North American rails are recognized: Clapper, King, Virginia, Yellow, and Black Rails, and Sora. Most include at least a few subspecies and populations. The birds’ preference for thick cover within wetlands and their often excruciatingly shy behavior make them difficult to lay eyes on, and many birders know them only from field guides.
Knowing a number of strategies, tricks, and ideas will assist you in getting a sighting, however. To learn them, I sought the wisdom of North America’s foremost rail experts: William Eddleman, a professor and researcher at Southeast Missouri State University; Jerry Tecklin, the head of the Black Rail Project and a professor at the University of California Davis; David Krementz, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher and a professor at the University of Arkansas; and Paul Sykes, a renowned rail authority, trip leader, and researcher for more than 30 years. This article is based on their advice.
Basic rail-seeking strategies
The first thing I learned is that time of day is one of the most important considerations for finding rails. The birds are largely crepuscular, becoming most active around dawn and dusk, so time your searches for shortly before sunrise or a couple of hours before sunset. Rails aren’t ambush hunters but tend to move steadily in search of food, providing a chance to catch them slinking through the marsh.
That said, a moving rail in impenetrable cover is as good as invisible. Focus on places where a gap in vegetation, a creek channel, or any other break in cover creates a window into the undergrowth. They often allow the best chance to see a relaxed bird clearly, if only for a moment.
Watch for any signs of a rail approaching your spot. Small clues such as slight ripples, tiny hints of movement, or quiet rustles in the vegetation can mean everything, so don’t assume that your mind is playing tricks on you.
With this in mind, it makes sense to search for rails at times of the year when their demand for food is greatest. Migration requires a lot of fuel, so the best times to seek migratory species are late March through April and September through October. Raising chicks takes a lot of work, too, and from late April through June, adults brave open areas more often to feed their families.
10 great places to see rails
1. Patuxent Research Refuge, Maryland: Virginia Rail, Sora
2. Chesapeake Marshlands NWR Complex, Maryland and Virginia: Virginia Rail, Sora, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Black Rail
3. Cedar Island NWR, North Carolina: Virginia Rail, Sora, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Yellow Rail, Black Rail
4. Clarence Cannon NWR, Missouri: Virginia Rail, Sora, King Rail
5. Anahuac NWR, Texas: Virginia Rail, Sora, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Yellow Rail, Black Rail
6. Brazoria NWR, Texas: Virginia Rail, Sora, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Yellow Rail, Black Rail
7. Red Slough, Oklahoma: Virginia Rail, Sora, King Rail, Yellow Rail, Black Rail
8. Lower Colorado River NWR Complex, Arizona: Virginia Rail, Sora, Clapper Rail, Black Rail
9. San Pablo Bay NWR, California: Virginia Rail, Sora, Clapper Rail, Black Rail
10. Klamath Marsh NWR, Oregon: Virginia Rail, Sora, Yellow Rail
Changing water levels in marshes dictate a great deal of the day-to-day movements of rails, and the changes can be used to your advantage. While exceptions exist, rails in general are not swimmers, and they will usually be found in areas with water no deeper than they can navigate on foot.
In any marsh with tidal influence, high tides push rails away from the heart of the marsh and into the sparser vegetation at the periphery. In spring, the highest tides of the year can force the birds out of cover altogether and leave them momentarily high and dry. Such tides are referred to as “marsh hen tides” because of the surprising numbers of rails waiting in the open for water levels to drop. Seasonal flooding in freshwater marshes often creates a similar phenomenon, concentrating rails at higher points in wetlands until levels recede.
Conversely, low tides and drought can draw rails onto mudflats in search of recently uncovered foraging grounds. This is especially true during brood-rearing, when the demand for food is highest and parents are more willing to leave cover to satisfy their chicks’ needs. That said, the birds are more likely to forage on exposed areas in low light, so focus on tides that reach their low near dusk or dawn.
The absolute easiest and surest way to determine the presence of rails, however, is through their calls. Many of our rails are gifted with distinct (and often surprisingly loud) vocalizations that can immediately betray their presence and location. Before you hit the marsh, make sure that you’re familiar with the calls given by the species you are looking for. Several recordings are available that provide a good overview of the voice of each species, but be mindful that rails produce a variety of squeaks, grunts, clicks, and whistles in addition to the breeding calls highlighted on most CDs.
Active calling frequently occurs in twilight or at night. Even in daylight, one bird calling can produce a chain reaction, and each individual rail sounds off in turn. Such roll calls are encouraging because they show that far more birds are in your area than you might imagine!
Another important factor is your behavior. A birder strolling through an area is unlikely to notice a rail in passing, because the bird’s primary defense is to freeze upon spotting a threat. Your best strategy is one adapted from the rail’s own behavior: Move slowly and deliberately (and only if you absolutely must), be as perfectly silent as possible, and get as low as you can.
Moving stealthily, or preferably not at all, not only makes you less likely to alert your target to your presence but also makes it far easier for you to pick up subtle movements and sounds. A lower profile helps to break up your silhouette and more important, gives you a better viewing angle to search at the base of vegetation. The foliage is much sparser the lower you get, so the views will be clearer, and besides, the rails themselves prefer to stay low. The strategies don’t have to doom you to hours of stiff knees from crouching silently in the swamp; simply take a folding camp chair to your location and relax while you wait.
With a good general idea about where and how to search, having a few tricks up your sleeve never hurts. A number of less orthodox strategies can give you the edge on rails and reward you with a sighting.
One overlooked method is to access the birds’ marshy habitat from the water in a canoe, kayak, or other agile, quiet craft. Birding from a boat gives you a different perspective on the rail’s habitat, is far less destructive to the marsh than crashing about on foot, and allows access to areas that could never be reached by land.
A combination of lower human disturbance and greater seclusion often makes birds a bit less cautious at such sites, increasing the chance of seeing one in the open. Rails can also be notably oblivious to observers when approached from the water, rather than from land. Most of their natural enemies are landborne. Therefore, the birds are often less wary of approach from the water.
Also, watch the event calendars at wildlife refuges. Field trips devoted to finding rails are organized and led by many refuges that contain marshes. They allow you to benefit from the knowledge of local guides and refuge personnel who know the area and birds the best. Groups are often led through spots not generally open to the public, since the supervision of a guide ensures that sensitive habitats won’t be damaged.
In the same vein, refuges always need volunteers to help with habitat restoration, rail research, population surveys, and maintenance projects in wetlands. Volunteering not only gives you better access to the birds’ habitat (and perhaps even a chance to hold a live rail!) but can also help ensure the survival of the birds you are looking for.
Endangered populations such as California Clapper and Black Rails and Arizona and Oregon Yellow Rails are in particular need of friends and help, and a few hours a month can go a long way. Such opportunities are often posted at refuge visitor centers and on websites or can be found with a quick call to a refuge or local Audubon group.
If all else fails, agriculture can also provide an unusual locale to see rails. Moist land that is cultivated for rice, hay, papyrus, or spartina can hold rails, especially in migratory periods. During harvest, surprising numbers of birds are flushed from fields as machinery removes the crops. Sora are by far the most common find, but attending a harvest can turn up any species, depending on the location and crop.
Rice fields are the most common and reliable, and farmers will often grant permission for you to watch from nearby drainage dikes or to walk at a safe distance from the slow-moving harvester. Some enterprising rice farmers have caught wind of this odd birding method and may even allow you to ride along in the combine for a small fee! As with any birding on private land, permission and courtesy are crucial, both for your safety and to ensure that the opportunity may be available in the future.
Put birds’ needs above yours
Everyone would like to see more rails. Their unique behavior, elegant appearance, and characteristic shyness make them extremely sought-after sightings. It is this desirability, however, that leads some birders to forget to put the well-being of the birds first.
On your quest for rails, never do anything that could jeopardize the survival of the bird you have come to enjoy. Intentionally startling or flushing birds to get a good view exposes them to predators and may force them to leave nests or young unattended (or abandon them altogether). It seems obvious, but I have seen frustrated birders resort to such tactics, even when they know better.
CD, tape, and MP3 recordings can add undue stress to rails and are prohibited in refuges, parks, or any conservation area. It is illegal to use them for any threatened or endangered population, so unless you are a researcher with special permission, leave the singing to the birds.
Wetlands are extremely sensitive habitats, and slogging through a marsh in search of rails can destroy the habitat their survival requires. And besides, wading up to your thigh in swamp muck is an unappealing picture. Stick to trails and boardwalks, or use canoes or kayaks to have the least-possible impact.
Always remember that the birds would rather never be seen at all. Any rail you are lucky enough to see in the open may be under a fair bit of stress, so avoid adding to it by attempting to get as close as possible, trying to feed the bird, or allowing unleashed pets to approach it. Stay low and stay quiet. It will come only as close as it wants to.
With all this to keep in mind, do you have any hope of ever seeing a wild, living rail? Of course. In fact, it’s a near certainty that eventually you will cross paths with one of the birds; doing so just requires patience and effort.
The closing advice I received from every expert with whom I spoke included three main points: be patient, be persistent, and know that many more rails are out there than you think.
Waiting for you is something most will never understand, an honor that not all can claim: a fleeting moment with a creeping phantom of the marsh.
Range: Breeds from coast to coast in northern U.S. and southern Canada. Year-round on west coast and in several areas in western states. Winters in the South and Mexico.
Where to watch: Within freshwater marshes, at the edges of thick vegetation. Focus on open gaps formed by creek channels, between thickets of cover, changes in dominant vegetation, and at the edge of open water.
Your strategy: Locate several likely spots ahead of time, then return to them at dawn or a few hours before dusk. Wait and listen quietly at each location at least 20 minutes before moving on. Virginia Rails will often feed on open, exposed mud banks or in shallow (less than three-inch-deep) water in plain view, as long as the observer stays still. Use calling birds to help zero in on the best rail habitat in the marsh, and to refine your eye for picking likely spots.
Field marks: Gray cheeks, rusty underparts, and black and white bars on flanks.
Range: Breeds from east to west coasts. Winters along California coast, from Mexico south to Peru, in Caribbean, and north to Virginia.
Where to watch: Habitats similar to Virginia Rail, but during migration they will occupy a wider variety of moist habitats, such as cultivated land, riparian areas, and wet meadows. Sora also swim out into open water on brief forays, so look for areas where dense cover meets deeper water, especially around creek inlets and outlets.
Your strategy: In addition to using the general approach outlined for Virginia Rail, search along marshy edges of ponds and lakes from a canoe, kayak, or other small, quiet boat. Attending a rice harvest also often gives good views of high numbers of Sora.
Field marks: Gray and brown body, short yellow bill, and black face and throat.
Range: Year-round from Texas to North Carolina. Breeds in southern states, along Mississippi River, and in isolated areas from Kansas to Ontario to Connecticut.
Where to watch: Kings favor reedy and grassy vegetation within freshwater marshes; look for patches of exposed mud near dense reeds and gaps in thick grassy cover.
Your strategy: Late spring is the best time to find Kings feeding in the open, as they forage on mud flats to feed their chicks. Explore grassy channels and mud flats from a canoe or boardwalks through likely habitat around dawn and dusk. Also, note that Kings share many plumage similarities with Virginia Rails but are twice as big.
Field marks: Rusty cheeks, black and white flanks, and almost crow-size.
Range: Strictly coastal. Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Florida, Gulf coast, San Francisco Bay, southern California, and coasts of western Mexico. Also occurs along California-Arizona border.
Where to watch: Clappers occupy habitat very similar to Kings but are strongly tied to salt marshes, whereas Kings are found almost exclusively in freshwater. Again, seek out exposed mud banks near dense reed cover, but in saltwater marshes.
Your strategy: Use the tides to your advantage, and focus near the waterline as retreating tides draw rails out of cover and onto mud flats. Conversely, wait for extremely high tides that briefly flood rails out of the dense reeds and into lighter cover at the edge of the marsh. In areas where spartina is harvested, watch for birds flushing in front of harvesters.
Field marks: Grayish overall, especially cheeks, and white patch below tail.
Range: Breeds in northern California, southern Oregon, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and much of Canada. Winters in San Francisco Bay, along Gulf coast, in Florida, and north to the Carolinas.
Where to watch: Yellow Rails generally stick to areas with less than an inch of standing water, favoring habitat with damp soil and dense grass. Direct your search to the outer borders of the marsh and any gaps in the heaviest cover. During migration, expand your search to moist prairies, hayfields, rice fields, and pastures.
Your strategy: Search wet meadows, especially during extremely high tides in salt marsh in early spring and winter. Attending a rice harvest or guided rail walk during migration, or volunteering at refuges and with researchers are also great ways to catch a glimpse.
Field marks: Striped and checkered back in black, buff, and white, and short bill.
Range: Not well known. Year-round in San Francisco Bay, southeastern California, coasts of Texas, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Breeds in Delaware, New Jersey, Kansas, Colorado, and a few other states.
Where to watch: Similar to Yellow Rail but much more local. Search for areas with damp soil and dense vegetation, often in salt marshes.
Your strategy: The best way to find sites for Black Rails is to request information from local Audubon chapters, refuges, birding groups, and online forums. Scout areas ahead of time around dusk or at night, when males may be calling. Return to spots where calling birds were present at dawn or dusk, preferably coinciding with a high tide.
Field marks: Chestnut nape, white spots on back, red eyes, and sparrow-size.
Chris Duke is a freelance outdoor and nature writer based in Seattle, Washington. He has worked as a wildlife biologist for a number of organizations, most recently for the World Parrot Trust in northeastern Bolivia. He thanks Bill Eddleman, Jerry Tecklin, David Krementz, and Paul Sykes, without whose vast knowledge and advice this article would not have been possible.