If you bird long enough, you will acquire a nemesis. What’s a nemesis? Mirriam-Webster gives us a few choices, but one definition hits the nail on the head as far as we’re concerned here: a formidable and usually victorious rival or opponent.
We don’t often think of birds as “opponents” when birding, but it happens. Eventually, there will be a species that you want to see, that you try for … and fail. Do that multiple times, and you have a nemesis. And it so happened that I had acquired a formidable foe. A nemesis: Clapper Rail (CLRA).
This saga begins in April of 1977. My first, real, far away from home birding trip (I was 14). A circumnavigation of northern California, starting in San Francisco. Two weeks of hard core, non-stop birding. It was fantastic. But I have no idea why we didn’t target CLRA, as they were certainly to be had in the Bay area, which we birded for two days. And it would have been a very nice armchair tick 37 years later. But we drove right on past what was to become Ridgway’s Rail.
Next, in July of 1978, in Delaware. My very first mega-twitch was a successful White-winged Tern, and with a day and a half left over, we hit the coastal marshes. I’m not sure how many Clapper Rails we heard as we bounced from Little Creek, to Prime Hook, and then south to Assateague Island. But it was more than a few. More than a few that I did not see.
Then to Florida that December, for a Florida birding odyssey, that started in Jacksonville, went down the outside, out in the keys, up the inside, and finished in the panhandle. Only one expected species was missed: Clapper Rail (though we did try hard for Bachman’s Sparrow, we couldn’t pull one up … but that species can be quite difficult in winter. More on that later.)
My Rallus crepitans hopes then laid dormant for 35 years, when I once again found myself in suitable habitat, this time in south Texas. A very quick attempt on South Padre Island—a Mecca for the species, I am told—turned up nothing.
The next crack at CLRA came the following year, this time in Delaware with ace birder (and ABA president) Jeff Gordon. We went to places that were “slam dunk” … and yes we did hear several. Quite a few, actually, in 3 different locations. But would one, just one, stick its rattling little noggin out to say hello? Hell no.
Is there anybody out there?
The next year, back in Texas: second verse, same as the first!
Clapper Rail is not an uncommon species. Some places are positively thick with them. Yes, like all rails, they are very good at hiding. But CLRA, more than any of our other Rallidae, except maybe Sora, likes to come out and show off on mudflats. Never far from grass or mangroves to hide in … but they do come out to say hi.
By now, my birding community buddies had picked up on what had become not just a nemesis, but an epic nemesis. From Cape May, to Florida, and the Gulf all the way back to South Padre … I had standing offers to come on out, and “guaranteed” Clapper rails await. Social media can really be wonderful at times.
Quest continues. November 2016. Back in Texas, South Padre Island, again. There was quite a posse of us, including ABA staffers John Lowry and Liz Gordon. We stepped out of the car at the beginning of the SPI Convention Center Nature Trail, and immediately heard one, no … two Clapper Rails. Excitedly, I headed out on the boardwalk. This spot is one of the “slam dunks“. The tide was out, and there were a lot of mud flats. Another bird called from the tall grass and mangroves.
I spent the next hour pacing the 1500 foot boardwalk, listening and hoping. At one point, a CLRA called from almost at my feet, deep in the mangrove roots. Yup, you guessed it. I went home to Chicago the next morning, without a Clapper Rail.
But, another opportunity was on the horizon. Just 8 weeks later, I found myself working the ABA booth at the Space Coast Birding Festival in Titusville, Florida … with miles of salt marsh and mangroves just across the bay.
January 24, 2017. I met Bill Stewart (ABA’s Director of Conservation and Community) at the Orlando airport in the mid afternoon, and we very quickly got to our hotel in Titusville, dropped our stuff, changed clothes and headed out to get a rail. Last year, I had been told of an excellent spot, but wasn’t able to get to it. This time, we had just enough on the clock before it got dark … and it was beautiful.
Bill scoping for rails.
The water level was perfect. There were birds everywhere. There had to be a Clapper Rail here! There were herons and egrets, snipe, sandpipers and plovers, gulls and terns, ibis and spoonbills … but no rails. We left, railless, when the sun finally let us down.
But the next morning Bill, John and I were leading a tour out to the very same area. And now we’d have a whole lot more eyes. Our trip was a bus tour of Black Point Wildlife Drive. Into the heart of Merritt Island’s salt marshes, and CLRA habitat. Bill was in the bus with the group; I was with John in the support vehicle, following behind. At one point the bus stopped ahead of us, and we got out and scoped a bit, as the group milled about in front of the bus. Bill walked back. “You’re not gonna like this… the dude in front of us had a Clapper Rail about a hundred yards back, just minutes ago,” he said. The group seemed in good hands for the moment, so I hoofed back down the road. Surely it was still there…
Selfie I took, when it wasn’t still there.
I posted that picture on Facebook, and tagged a few people that were out with us, noting that I missed Clapper Rail by moments. John and I had to get back to the booth, as the birding festival was opening in about 15 minutes, so we left Bill to stay with the bus as they hit the restrooms, and also headed in. When Bill got to the booth, he told us that the group had a Clapper Rail walking around in the grass by the restrooms! That afternoon, the hashtag #ClapperFail was a thing.
That evening, some of my friends did an intervention. I needed help. This required a team! John, my partner in crime once again, along with Bill, Opticron’s Tom Dunkerton (Dunk), and Leica Marketing Manager Jeff Bouton, decided enough was enough. All have extensive experience birding this area, and know exactly where this nemesis lurks. We’re gonna put this thing to rest. Now.
January 27, 2017. Over dinner conversation, Dunk discovers that I have never seen a Bachman’s Sparrow, and even though they are very difficult to get in the winter (or at least can be); he’s got a spot. So our plans shape up. First thing in the morning, we’ll go to the spot, and get me my Bachman’s Sparrow…
… the next morning: DENIED! The gate was closed. But we only had a short wait until the Tosohatchee WMA opened, and then we were the first people in that morning. It was a beautiful, crisp start to the day. Birds singing everywhere, but we were listening for the very high pitched, almost kinglet-like tssip! call of Bachman’s Sparrow.
L-R: Dunk, Bill, Jeff, and John.
We spread out and slowly walked the open pine woods, the waist-high cabbage palm scratching and scraping, sounding like paper grocery bags being loaded in a car. A sparrow popped up in front of Dunk and he softly yelled, “got it!”; I got enough of a look to know we hit paydirt. We formed a loose circle around the point where the bird had dove into the scrub, and waited. Except Jeff. He had wandered a few yards away, while we watched where Dunk’s bird had disappeared. We watched. We waited. We shuffled about. And from behind me I hear Jeff go, “pssst, pssst,” nodding at his scope as he gets my attention. I look to where his scope is pointed and see nothing. There’s a bird right in front of me. I know it’s right there.
“Pssst, pssst, hey.” Okay. I walk over to Jeff, the others right behind me, and peer into his scope…
My lifer Bachman’s Sparrow
Heady with our success, we hopped in our vehicles and quickly made the 22 mile drive to Dunk’s “slam dunk” Clapper Rail spot. Dismounted, we spread out along the dike road, working the mangroves of Gator Creek.
Early phase of spreading out.
We had about an hour before we all had to be back at the festival. We peered into every nook. Every cranny. Every root clump…
Hello … is there a rail down here??
The A Team had failed. This foe—this nemesis—was evil to the core. Dunk’s slam-dunk was bunk. The birding godz despise me, and anyone with me. #ClapperFail once again.
Back at the Space Coast Birding Festival, the show was rockin’. The weather had turned. A strong north wind carried scudding clouds, and the temperature was dropping, eventually into the low 50°s. Inside, people were having a good time. Lots of people stopped by the booth to join or renew. Birding festivals are fun. But this one ended that Saturday afternoon. We packed everything up, and headed out. But, there was still some daylight left.
John and Bill decided we’re going to give this one last try. We had about an hour or so of light left, and headed back out to Gator Creek. We picked a different spot from the morning’s attempt along the dike roads, spread out and started searching. I was farthest down the road, about 75 yards from our vehicles, when a lunatic appeared. Seriously, this dude was driving at speed—in reverse—kicking up a dust cloud on the narrow gravel dike … coming right at me! I stepped off the road into the grass to let him pass, but the dark SUV ground to a halt and the driver shoved the back of a camera out the window at me. It was Dunk! …and the picture on the back of his Canon was, a Clapper Rail, of course. I just stood there gaping and he said, “get in.” We took off. John and Bill quickly saddled up and chased after us.
About a quarter mile on, we stopped. “Right there,” Dunk said. “It was right there, with a Sora.”
We looked. We scoped. We prowled … and we then spread out. Twenty minutes later, I was about 50 yards from where Dunk had the bird, and all I could do was laugh to myself. “Seriously??!!?? Is this really happening … again?” myself said to me.
We were running out of daylight, and time. We had made dinner plans, and had people to meet. CRAP! I really thought I had it this time. We were now back at the parked vehicles, discussing our plan for the evening. Well, actually, John wasn’t. He was standing back at the original spot, staring at something…
… “Hey Greg, get over here.” I got over there. There was a rail moving in the mangrove roots … a Sora. “No,” John said quietly. “Look to the left.” I looked to the left.
Decades of study and preparation allowed me to instantly deduce that this was indeed a Clapper Rail. But seriously … after all this. THAT is going to be my lifer look??? I couldn’t even see its head, really. So I sat, and watched. John, meanwhile, was live-streaming the event on Facebook. Eventually, it came out…
The A Team came through as the buzzer sounded. Nemesis down.
Now, about Chihuahuan Raven … it takes a village, you know.
L-R: me, John, Dunk, Bill
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