There are lots of things about Clapper Rails that are “long”. Their toes for one, adapted for distributing the weight of a chicken sized bird on perilous mats of floating vegetation that one finds in abundance in a saltmarsh. The legs those toes are attached to for another, for wading through shallow water and when combined with the lengthy extremities allows rails to work their way through the grasses with all the skill of a world class right rope walker. The whole body of a Rail is long, and ridiculously narrow. All the better to slip unseen through Spartina. They’re the true biological inspiration for the term “Thin as a Rail” and it’s a funny bit of birding irony that despite the pervasiveness of that saying few members of the general public even know that rails even exist. That suits the furtive rails just fine. They prefer to wrap themselves in mystery, to roam their wet and grassy world out of the gaze of any but their own species, even going so far as to disguise their vocalizations to resemble those of frogs or bugs or rocks clacking together, anything but a big, gangly, long bird.
Perhaps that’s why rails have always seemed a bit magical to me. My first encounters with Rails (and by Rails I’m referring to the long-billed representatives of the family Rallidae, not necessarily the relatively showier Sora, technically a crake) came in South Texas, when my dad and I flushed a little Virginia Rail from some cattails near a canal. That small dark whirring bird with the dangling toes was my introduction to, and for years by entire experience of, Rails. During my North Carolina Big Year I spent some time in the southern part of the state stomping about in saltmarshes leading to a remarkably similar experience with my life Clapper Rail, a giant compared to the little Virginia, but equally leggy and fly away from me-y. This, plus a calling King in Florida this past spring, is the extent of my Rail exposure. I am, without doubt, significantly Rail deficient.
I’ve never had one of those transcendent rail experiences where the man and the mystery collide (hopefully with a camera in tow), at least until this past weekend at Huntington Beach State Park on the north coast of South Carolina. I had already had a pretty great morning photographing the wader roosts, having easily acquired all of my big targets for the day (Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, and Painted Bunting). I saw a sign for a marsh boardwalk, and being a sucker for boardwalks, I pulled and set off down the wooden planks in search of, well, anything really, I had no expectations. I was focusing on the Tricolored Herons perched on the railing when a big gray bird caught my eye, or at least I had caught its eye, one the precise shade of ground cumin glowing from the short grasses not more than two feet from the boardwalk. Clapper Rail. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.
Rails have a reputation, rightly earned, for being leery of people. I half expected this bird to slowly lumber off into the marsh beyond my ability to follow. But it didn’t. It sat there as I circled around it to get the sun at my back, watching me before deciding at some point I wasn’t worth concern, stuck as I was on this pathway, limited to a wooden prison several hundred meters long, but only five feet wide. It then began to do Rail stuff, which as far as I can tell consists of strutting around looking for stuff in the water, at least when it doesn’t involves flushing violently from underfoot. I was just along for the ride.
Rallus, the genus of all the bigger, long-billed Rails, is an old word. It dates back to at least 1676, and refers to the widespread Water Rail, Rallus aquaticus, of Europe. It’s etymology isn’t completely clear, but it appears to be the Latinized version of a multitude of different languages word for the Water Rail. In German, ralle, in French, rale, in Dutch, ral, each seemingly seeking to outdo the others in brevity. In any case, it’s simple and utilitarian. Perhaps it is German, after all.
The species name is one with some pedigree as well. Longirostris, from the Latin longus, meaning, well, you can figure that out, and rostrum, meaning “billed”. There are no shortage of birds for which the length of their bill, or snout, was apparently fascinating to Carolus Linneaus. There are mammals and flowers and bird after bird after bird. Thrushes and Hummingbirds and Nightjars (for whom a long bill must have been a real shock), and the saltmarsh Rail whose bill is longer than most. Too long, even, to fit in some photographs. Or perhaps this bird was just too close.
I ended up walking away from the Rail, one of those things you never expect to say. Granted, it was slowly making its way into a denser stand of grass and eventually all I could make out of it was its body, perfectly mottled to accept the dappling of even harsh South Carolina sunlight on the marsh, and the slight movement of the grasses as it deftly passed between them. An amazing bird.
I won’t go so far as to say my Rail curse is broken, but if I don’t see another Rail for a long time, I think I’ll be ok with it. This is the sort of birding experience you carry with you for an appropriately long time.