CODEBREAKERS: How to Find the Elusive Black Rail

by Heather Hill

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the great things about birding is that some birds are incredibly challenging to find, requiring skill, patience, and, maybe most of all, luck. The ABA and Birding magazine are dedicated to helping birders increase their chances of finding the ABA Area’s most difficult birds by providing tips and tricks by top birding experts. That’s the philosophy behind the new Codebreakers series, of which Heather Hill’s column on finding Black Rails is the first entry. I hope you enjoy!
Frank Izaguirre

The sunrise breaks over a coastal salt marsh located along the northern Gulf of Mexico. The dawn chorus has begun with a mix of Red-winged Blackbirds, Clapper Rails, and distant Northern Cardinals calling from the neighboring pine woods. On the edge of the marsh, you’ve set up your stakeout spot: a camping chair, a cup of hot brew, your binoculars, and a light blanket to keep you comfortable on this cool, late-March morning. You don’t anticipate using your binoculars, because the bird you’re after doesn’t like to show itself often.

Low salt marsh is often inundated with tidal flow and borders patches of salt panne. Photo by © Heather Hill.

As you take a sip from your cup, a call cuts through the melody over the marsh: kick-ee-doo! A slow grin makes its way across your face as your pulse quickens. That was it, the bird that made the 4am alarm worth it: a Black Rail.

For many hard-to-find species, it is best to be at the right place at the right time. The time of year, or even the time of day, plays an important part in chasing a target species. Also knowing where to go and what to look for can help you find that must-have bird. Birds such as the Black Rail, a Code 2 on the ABA Checklist, have a particular preference when it comes to their habitat and when they are most active.

Black Rails: They do exist! And can sometimes even be photographed, like this individual in Marin, California. Photo by © Jodhan Fine.

An important note before we begin: Eastern Black Rails (Latterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis) are federally listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It is illegal to use playback as a means of provoking this species into calling, except when a federal permit has been issued for scientific research. Using playback can cause undue stress on the birds, especially during the breeding season when the rails are the most territorial. It can also alter their natural behaviors, and even cause them to leave an area if playback is used excessively. It is always best to stay on designated trails, and do not attempt to approach a calling Black Rail or enter its habitat.

When thinking of a coastal salt marsh, what do you picture in your mind’s eye? Perhaps a monoculture of a reed-like plant next to a tidal creek or small saltwater pond? Or maybe a mixed composition of three or four plant species next to that same tidal creek or pond? No matter what you imagine, the common thread is likely to be the presence of water. You are thinking of a coastal marsh after all, so there must be water, right?

Well, that is not always the case. Generally, a coastal salt marsh can consist of several different habitat types. These include the token low marsh (described above), high marsh, salt panne, and upland. When looking for Black Rails, low marsh is not the right place. The high marsh, a zone located between low marsh and the uplands, is the best place to find them.

The Black Rail is a secretive marsh bird that spends most of its time hidden within the vegetation found in high marsh areas. It has been described as “more mouse than bird,” since it is more likely to run than fly. Unlike its other rail cousins, the Black Rail prefers not to get its feet wet too often. While it does stay in drier areas of the marsh, the Black Rail will make its home adjacent to areas of low marsh that get wet during the spring tides. These wetter parts of the marsh are where they find their food: mud-dwelling invertebrates. Having these dry and wet microhabitats side by side is important for these birds: They have space to build nests without the risk of them flooding at high tide and places to forage for food. Thus, in your search for one of these “mouse birds,” you must look where the dry marsh meets the wet marsh and keep your ears open.

High marsh habitat generally consists of large swaths of grasses interspersed with patches of open salt panne. The salt pannes are usually dry for most of the year, but they flood during the extreme spring tides. In the marshes of the Florida Gulf Coast, one of the most common grasses in the high marsh is marsh-hay cordgrass (Spartina patens), a personal favorite. At a glance, this cordgrass stands out as a fluffy, lush Kelly green against the stiffer, darker appearance of black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus). It is often mixed in with the needlerush at the edges of salt panne, but truly shines as a monoculture.

Marsh-hay cordgrass is prime Black Rail habitat because it folds over on itself and forms “rail-roads.” Photo by © Heather Hill.

If you’ve ever lain in a meadow of thick grass, you can imagine the consistency marsh-hay cordgrass brings to the harsh marsh landscape. In ideal Black Rail habitat, cordgrass exists as a soft bed of grass that gently lays over on itself. Beneath this canopy of bunch grass are little tunnels, aptly nicknamed “rail-roads.” Black Rails use these “rail-roads” to navigate their territories without exposing themselves to predators that may lurk above. Cordgrass can sometimes be so thick that little to no light penetrates to the ground, something that is of little issue to this crepuscular bird.

In some regions of the Gulf Coast, other bunch grasses of the Spartina genus are the preferred habitat for the Black Rail. Gulf cordgrass (Spartina spartinae), for example, is similar in appearance to marsh-hay cordgrass and can grow just as thick. These bunch grasses not only provide shelter, but also can serve as an “island” refuge for birds to escape unusually high water levels. Rails can easily perch atop the clumps of grass and travel between them like a trail of steppingstones across a stream.

Now that your mind’s eye has been updated to include a search image of high marsh habitat, here’s a fun tip to keep in mind while you’re admiring it from the trail. In some places, it may be helpful to pay attention to a bird that we birders often ignore: mockingbirds! These ubiquitous but talented birds can mimic most anything: car alarms, cell phone rings, and, you guessed it, Black Rails. If you see a mockingbird including an almost-perfect kick-ee-doo in its song repertoire, it is highly likely to be sharing space with a Black Rail. And if it happens to be singing next to ideal rail habitat, you’re definitely in the right place.

Once you’ve established a prime stakeout spot next to a patch of high marsh, showing up at the right time is critical. Black Rails begin vocalizing for the breeding season in late March or early April and can continue into July. If you have a strong desire to commune with the local mosquitoes, hanging out in the marsh in late May to early June is prime. But if not, the cooler mornings or evenings of March and April, sans mosquitoes, is the best time to hear a rail.

If you’ve ever done anything at night, whether it’s owling or sitting at a vista with your significant other, chances are you’ve taken a few moments to appreciate the moon. The bright, soft light of the full lunar surface provides just enough luminance to paint the world as a black-and-white image. Black Rails seem to like full moons, too, but maybe not as part of a romantic evening in the marsh. So, when you’re planning your trip to the coast, check out the moon phase. If the lighting is right, you might get lucky!

In high marsh, Black Rails use “rail-roads” to get around. Photo by © Heather Hill.

After whittling your trip window down to the right week, you have to decide what time of day to be there to hear them. Black Rails are crepuscular, active around dawn and dusk. Most birders know that to see the birds we want, we often have to rise early. This means waking up before dawn and getting to the spot at daybreak. To hear Black Rails, this strategy is effective, but it’s best to arrive for a stakeout about 30 minutes to an hour before dawn. You will have time to set up your spot before the dawn chorus begins and not have to worry about the crinkly packaging from your gas station breakfast obscuring the low-volume of the Black Rail’s kick-ee-doo.

For us night owls, an evening stakeout is also an option. Arriving at your selected spot about two hours before sunset is ideal. As with the morning crowd, this will give you time to get things set up (and for the mosquitoes to find you). If a rail is present, it is likely to call in the fading light just prior to sunset, but not too much longer after the sun has disappeared. In Florida, Black Rails will sometimes call it an early night, but they may continue calling well into the night like the birds in other Gulf populations. My experience with these birds suggests that it’s best to bite the bullet and rise early. Isn’t that how the phrase goes: “an early birder gets the rail”?

If you don’t hear a rail during the dawn chorus or amidst the buzzing of the evening flies, do not despair! Detecting a Black Rail is a waiting game, and it is important to be patient. It is possible that one may call hours after dawn (a personal observation included a calling bird at 11:30am); you just have to wait. Pass the time by watching the other bird species you see flitting around in the marsh! If you’re unfamiliar with them, try quizzing yourself on their songs and calls, or try identifying them by their “jizz” (the overall impression of a bird based on its shape, behavior, and location). Also be sure to bring plenty of snacks (and water). The worst that could happen is that you don’t hear a rail, and that is okay. We don’t always find the birds we are looking for, but we can still have fun in the process.

Black Rails are a must-have for many birders, a highly sought-after bird for listers, and even a “white whale” for some, all because of their secretive nature. Hearing one is something special, and I hope one day you will look back and laugh at the number of mosquito bites you got from the experience.

Coastal salt marsh can be a complex system and provides habitat for many bird species. Photo by © Heather Hill.

Originally published in Birding, August 2022 >>

Heather Hill is an avid birder currently working in the coastal marshes of north Florida. She monitors Black Rails for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Firebird Project while at the Stoddard Bird Lab at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy.  She has a Master of Science degree in Biology from Florida State University.