Swampcrawler 2: Return of Swampcrawler
It was not that long ago that I related the story of my giant rail fail at what I thought at the time was the White Oak Creek arm of Jordan Lake down in Chatham County. I had woven together the strands of a mostly disappointing trip into a narrative for 10,000 Birds. A narrative that would have been much more exciting had I found the rails but hey, you work with what you’ve got. And in the comments of said 10kB post, my fellow Triangle birder Robert let me know, gently as is his manner, that I had traveled to the entirely wrong part of the lake and no amount of loquacious ass-covering would have found me the bird that was not to be found in this particular swamp.
It was some time before I had the opportunity to return, and in the meantime June had rolled unceremoniously into July, meaning that the odds that these secretive birds would still be vocalizing enough to track down were growing longer by the day. And even though I didn’t expect to get a look at them, I still needed to hear them. King Rail would be a state bird for me, one I should have nailed down long ago had I felt the impetus to do so, so there was another layer of anxiety lain atop the one the felt chagrined for not heading to the right place in the first time. Not doing things right the first time seems to be something of a theme this year.
Circumstances outside my control conspired to prevent me from arriving to the spot til around 9, a bit late for prime rail vocalizations, but I was feeling confident that the “extremely vocal” rails, who had not known any particular preference for rising early at any point yet this year, would be willing to do their thing once or twice to get me off the hook. I carefully picked my way down the treacherous rocky path towards the swamp and set out to listening.
The silence was near deafening, well except for the odd Common Yellowthroat, the churring of Red-headed Woodpeckers, the wheezy protestations of Gnatcatchers and the incessant buzzing of insects. It was the insects that grabbed my attention first, the dragonflies mostly. They were made up primarily of three species, the racing striped Eastern Pondhawks, the dour Slaty Skimmers and the dainty and dirty looking Blue Dashers. I have to say, learning my common dragonflies has certainly added another dimension to my weekly ramblings, at least in as much as they distract me from the rails I’m not hearing.
After a while I waded out into the swamp. The water was scarcely knee high, but laden with electronics and optics as I was, I was still hesitant to go too far. So I carefully worked my iPhone out of my pocket, found the King Rail call and held it over my head in the hopes that something, anything would respond.
Prior attempts at playback had elicited nothing but Cricket Frogs, but as soon as the first round had finished, a clacky grunting rose out of the reeds nearby. It took me a second or two to register what was going on, and by the time my brain was working properly, the call was ending. A King Rail. Unmistakable, especially since Clapper Rails aren’t going to be found this far inland. Subsequent plays failed to bring anything out of the muck. The bird stayed silent. A disappointing heard-only (thus, King Rail stays on my provisional life list), but enough to count for state and county. That’s how it goes, sometimes.
As I walked over the bridge mack to my car I thought about how I was inexplicably missing Green Heron on my Chatham County list, probably my most obscene gap. So I set to scanning what part of the wetland I could see in the hopes I could turn one up. In the farthest part of the swamp, at least a half mile distant, I picked up on a dark mass perched on a snag. It was no soul-satisfying view, but I know the elongated profile of an Anhinga when I see one. Chatham County bird #188.
One state bird, even poorly experienced, and two county birds makes for a fine morning indeed. Now if I could just get a look at those rails…