January 17, 2022

by Robert Becker

A few years ago on a sunny March day, I was walking my dog on one of my favorite trails at Galveston Island State Park when an unfamiliar sound erupted from some tall grass near the edge of the path. It sounded like this: “Ki-ki dzher, ki ki-ki dzher.”

I stopped to wonder. What on earth was making that call? Then it hit me. I was hearing a calling Black Rail, a bird I had search for in vain over the years. This bird, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is one of our most elusive avian species, one that is “infamously difficult to see.” Their population has been declining because of habitat loss, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has placed them on its Threatened Species list.

Black Rail, Photo by Greg Lavaty

Black Rails have red eyes and are mostly black and gray and are barely larger than a mouse or small sparrow. You can stand within inches of one that is in the tall grass and you will not see it. They rarely dart out into the open.  Most birders know about Black Rails, and most birders have never seen one, or even heard one. At a few select locations on Galveston Island, however, birders can search for this wraith of the marshes. It is not easy, and it requires luck, but it can be done.

Once I had familiarized myself with this rail’s call, I began to hear it at different locations in the park. I found them most often on the Clapper Rail Trail, near the observation deck; along the Caracara Trail, just west of the deck; along the short entrance path to the Jenkins Bayou kayak launch; and in the marshy areas along both sides of the Prairie Trail, near where it begins.

A few months after that first encounter, I heard the now-familiar rail call, and it seemed as if there were two of them drawing closer. About six feet from the edge of the trail, two Black Rails broke from cover, one flying after the other. They had a chestnut-colored nape, and white spots on a dark back. I couldn’t believe it. I had just seen two Black Rails.

Over the following years, I managed to see other rails as they flushed briefly from the edge of a trail or road I was walking. The sightings were just a second or two, but they are unmistakable.

The best time to hear a calling Black Rail at the state park is in spring and early summer, when they are setting up nesting territories. They do call in fall and winter, but rarely. I have also heard them calling at Houston Audubon’s Dos Vacas Muertas sanctuary on Galveston’s West End. They probably can be found at other sites on the island, including land owned by the Artist Boat foundation, but these may not be publicly accessible.  We are fortunate indeed to be host to this charismatic and highly-sought bird, so come visit and try your luck.

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