Authors note: this sighting took place on August 11th of this year. This species has not been reported as seen at this location recently.
Birders, Photographers, and the Life List
Everybody wanted to see the King Rail.
On the boardwalk at the Honda Wetlands this summer, when birders discussed species, this one came up the most often. Men and women ranging in age from 30-something to 60-something, some with binoculars and notepads, others with spotting scopes or long telephoto lenses on their cameras steadied on tripods. I had my Canon DSLR with its modest 250mm telephoto lens, enough camera power to get decent shots of birds not too far away, and certainly more portable for casual photography, which was my interest. I take as many if not more shots of wildflowers and landscapes as I do birds. I enjoy it all.
This avian inspiration came from the Ohio Birds Listserv posts of birders who’ve seen this elusive bird during the spring and summer. This is the kind of bird that many people want for their life list– their personal document that records what species they have seen over a lifetime of birding. When you start a life list, times are good. There are many common birds in Ohio to be seen, and dozens of species are recorded with ease on nature walks. Once the count reaches, say, 100, things start to slow down. Much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. The real work (that is also a hobby pleasure) then begins, seeking out specific birds in certain locations. Birder trivia fact- there are 425 bird species officially recognized as having been seen in Ohio.
That was certainly the reason that several birders were at the marsh for. Most people don’t live near wetlands. It’s a unique habitat containing shy and secretive birds. Locations such as the Honda Wetlands are regular gathering places for birders working on filling out their life lists.
This is especially true for those semi-professional photographers who collect images of birds. Theirs is a photogenic life list, and the opportunity to get a great shot of a hard-to-find bird is what drives them to haul their equipment onto the boardwalk. Ladies and gentlemen sitting patiently behind their tripods on portable stools aimed at the cat-tails where marsh denizens had been spotted before they arrived are a common sight on the boardwalk. Their gear can be quite expensive, and it is occasionally personalized, like the long telephoto lenses with images of wildlife professionally painted upon the tube. These birder-photographers often know their hobby well.
Not that everyone is an expert. There is the occasional beginner birder on the boardwalk, and they are welcomed by all. I myself was a birder many years ago until I got involved with other hobbies; now I am back, and I naturally defer to those who’ve been birding for many years more than I. Less-experienced birders often intuitively know this. There’s the old saw about not opening your mouth and confirming that you are a fool. Hesitating to say what a new bird is, particularly when it can be mistaken for other species, can be wise. Veterans with the knowledge of decades will speak up, lending their weight to an observation, while a beginner may scribble down the info on a notepad.
One of the personal delights of the hobby is when a non-birder who is walking by stops and asks questions about the birds that everyone is looking at. One father brought his pre-teen son to the boardwalk, and both were genuinely interested in the different species, asking how long they live, where do they go in the winter, what they eat, and other questions. I talked to them for a while, answering as best as I could, and they thanked me before they left. Perhaps another future birder or two walked back to their car.
The King Rail is a notable marsh bird species. Its numbers have declined in the northern part of its range, including Ohio, due to the parallel decline in wetlands habitat. So on the one hand, it is notable for its scarcity. It is also notable due to its size. This species is distinctly larger than similar birds such as the more-common Virginia Rail. And lastly, it is notable due to its standard marsh-denizen behavior: it likes to hide from view. This of course is a survival strategy. After raising its young, this bird molts, completely replacing its feathers, which leaves it flightless for around a month. No wonder it hides in reeds and cat-tails!
This bird’s diet consists largely of crustaceans, water bugs, and small fish. It will also eat insects, though it likes to dunk them in water before swallowing them.
A male King Rail will court a female by offering her food. That is very gentlemanly!
It’s Hard To See Until It Isn’t
Much like the other species of marsh birds I’ve blogged about, my King Rail sighting came as somewhat of a surprise. This secretive bird normally keeps to the cat-tails, but this individual walked out of its cover, wading in the shallow water and searched for and found food several times before walking back into the foliage. I am guessing that the shrinking amount of water had something to do with this.
At first glance, this bird looks like a Virginia Rail- some of the features are similar. But it is significantly larger, and the coloration is different. This individual looks like an adult female- the throat is white.
Here she is stalking out of the cat-tails on the lookout for food in the water.
She strikes fast when she sees something good to eat.
She has intricate color patterns on her feathers.
The photographers on the boardwalk (including me) were shooting like crazy as she walked only feet away from us through the water. To say we were surprised would be an understatement.
Here’s my favorite picture of her I took- what a magnificent bird. Notice her amber eye.
This King Rail was a life list bird for me. I’m very happy I got the opportunity to get some photos of her!