PHANTOM of the MARSH!

BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunAThey do like the mud! The coastal saltwater marsh of North Carolina’s easternmost counties is home to one of the most secretive birds you may ever have the lifetime privilege to glimpse. Hearing a raspy chock–chock–chock, a short series of clacking or grunting sounds, might even be an easier discovery than seeing the “thin as a rail,” Clapper Rail. Their rattling call is one of the most common sounds in the marshes, although seeing this wetlands bird who likes to hide in dense cover isn’t easy. One of six rail species found in North Carolina, the gray and brown Clapper Rail, also known as the Marsh Hen, uses its lean body to easily slip through marsh grass while hunting and or escaping predators.BLOG_Clapper-Rail1 They would rather run through the thick mud than fly. Clapper Rails are considered weak flyers because flight has only been observed in low bursts of short distances, where landing shortly after taking off is common. Recently, four youngster Clapper Rails were admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter after a gentleman rescued them from the Beaufort Channel. The Good Samaritan and his wife were spending the afternoon on their skiff and happened upon the four being aggressively tossed about by waves mercilessly created by the large boats in the area. He pulled his skiff between the large boats’ busy passage and the four chicks to buffer the challenging waves and waited for nearly 45 minutes, thinking one of the rails’ parents would show up to lead them out of their precarious situation. When that didn’t happen, their rescuer became concerned that because the babies were so tiny, the large boats could unintentionally run them over. He decided to bring them onboard and transport them to our shelter in Newport to ensure their safety. He mentioned they were quite fatigued and might not have lasted much longer. They are definitely too young to be on their own, so his compassionate decision probably saved their lives and afforded them that second chance. Chicken like in appearance, the Clapper Rail has long, unwebbed toes, a lengthy downward curved bill and an upward turned tail with white under tail feathers. They are the largest of the rail species when fully grown, 13 to 16 inches in length with a compact body and long, strong legs. BLOG_clapper%20rail%202Although both are slender, the males are slightly larger than the delicately built females and a wee bit more colorful. Clapper Rails in North Carolina sport a fairly pale, olive brown or gray brown appearance with a subdued rust colored chest. Aquatic life is the Clapper Rail’s diet of choice. They forage for food by walking through wetland vegetation. Most hunting is done at low tide, where they scavenge for crustaceans such as crabs or crayfish, mollusks, snails, aquatic insects and their larvae, small fish or small amphibians such as frogs. They simply pick up food items when spotted or probe in the mud for food with their long bills. They are also known to snatch a snake or two and may occasionally feed on plant matter, mostly seeds, but approximately 80% of their diet is animal-based. Clapper Rails are monogamous and pairing is established and reestablished each year. During courtship displays, the male approaches the female, points his bill down and swings his head from side to side. Another impressive move is to stand erect, neck stretched with bill open. A male has also been known to feed the female. Nesting pairs enhance their bond by blending their clattering until they sound like one bird. Biologists refer to this “as one” initiative as a “duet.” The nesting season occurs from April to June. Nests, built by both the male and female, are cup shaped clumps of vegetation and are often found where ditches or creeks foster the growth of tall and short grasses, as well as, near the upper reaches of high tide or on a bank near water. Common nesting materials are hollow stems of plants and coarse marsh grasses. Occasionally a canopy will be woven over the nest, and often a ramp of plant material leading from the lower ground up to the nest situated in the wetland reeds will be constructed. Generally, nine to 12 eggs are laid, and rails may produce more than one clutch per year. Incubation averages 20 days and is performed by both sexes, as well as raising the young. BLOG_CSMagClapperRail&Babies_2015Jun_The chicks are semi-precocial and able to feed independently shortly after leaving the nest. Young rails are able to fly in nine to 10 weeks and acquire their adult plumage by October of their first year. A group of Clapper Rails are collectively known as an “applause, audience or commercial.” When a Clapper Rail sighting is made it usually occurs when the rail is focused on stalking for prey along the muddy edge of the marsh while twitching its short tail in anticipation of the grab.BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunB_ It may also be seen swimming across a tidal creek. Best viewing opportunities occur at dawn and dusk as the birds leave the thick marsh grass and feed on open mud flats. Their unique behavior, elegant appearance and characteristic shyness make them extremely sought-after sightings, but if you are that eager birder, always put the well being of the bird first. Remember, Clapper Rails would rather never be seen at all. 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. So, never do anything that could hinder the survival of this mysterious phantom of the marsh. If you are lucky enough to see a Clapper Rail in the open, it may be under a bit of stress, so avoid adding to that by giving it a wide berth, and do not allow unleashed pets to approach it. Stay low and stay quiet. The long-term population trend of the Clapper Rail is most severely affected by water pollution, flooding of nests during Spring high tides and the destruction of coastal marsh habitat. Due to the rail’s secretive nature, the difficulty of working in marsh environments and a lack of funding for rail research, basic information regarding life history and yearly population status is limited. Clapper rail populations can best be maintained by preserving their wetland habitat and with strong support for effective protection laws. Our little Clapper Rails are putting away an abundant share of large meal worms as well as, silver sides and growing bigger and stronger every day. When they are ready, they will be returned to the marsh they call home.

Hope everyone is having a HAPPY summer wherever you find yourself to be!!!

Linda S. Bergman-Althouse, author of SAVE THEM ALL

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