CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.
Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO. By being both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.
Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking, picking their way through marginal vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.
COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY
When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.
OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).
Just over 3 years ago, THE BIRDS OF ABACOwas published and launched at the Delphi Club. The book was intended to showcase the wonderful and varied bird life on Abaco – home to endemics, permanent residents, seasonal residents, and a wide variety of migrating transients. The book has been most generously received and supported – though I have to report that already its definitive checklist (dating from 1950) has become outdated with the recording of 6 additional species on Abaco, featured elsewhere in this blog.
Tom Sheley was one of the main photographic contributors to the book, and I had the good fortune to coincide with one of his trips to Abaco, when he was armed with significant photographic weaponry; and to accompany him on some of his photographic day trips (not including the early morning ones, in my case). This clapper rail is one of my favourites of his photo sequences of a bird being a bird – preening, stretching, calling – in its own habitat.
My one regret about my involvement in producing the book (it took 16 months) and more generally in the wildlife of Abaco is that I have entirely failed to progress to sophisticated (expensive) photographic equipment capable of producing images the quality of Tom’s. Yes, I’ve moved on from compacts (ha!) to bridge cameras (Panasonic Lumix + lens extender), and some results ‘make the cut’. But my move up to a Canon SLR was mainly disastrous, and when eventually I inadvertently drowned it (I overbalanced while photographing shorebirds from breaking waves. Total immersion. Total stupidity.) I felt an unexpected sense of relief. A blessing really – I never understood it, nor in my heart of hearts (if I’m honest) really wanted to… But my feeble struggle made me realise and appreciate the enormous skill of those like Tom who take ‘National Geographic’ quality photographs. It’s not just the equipment – it’s knowing exactly how to use it, and often in a split second…
Photos by Tom Sheley – with thanks for the adventures
BAHAMAS STAMPS & ABACO BIRDS: ‘IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF PHILATELY’
The Bahamas produces frequent issues of wildlife stamps. Mostly birds, but also reef fish and sea creatures, animals, butterflies and flowers. I am gradually collecting an album of Bahamas wildlife stamps on aPHILATELYpage. I’ve been having a look at a 16-bird issue from 1991 which reflects the wide diversity of species extremely well. Here is the set, with comparative photos of each bird. All but one were taken on Abaco, the rare Burrowing Owl being the exception. All the other 15 birds may be found on Abaco as permanent residents, either easily or with a bit of a look and some luck. I personally have not seen the Clapper Rail (though I saw aSORA) or the rarer Key West Quail-Dove.
The bird list and image credits
Green Heron Butorides virescens Nina Henry
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura Keith Salvesen / RH (Delphi)
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus Keith Salvesen / RH (Marls)
Clapper Rail Rallus longirostris Erik Gauger
Royal Tern Thalasseus maximus Keith Salvesen / RH (Marls)
Key West Quail-Dove Geotrygon chrysia Becky Marvil
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani Bruce Hallett
Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia Keith Salvesen / RH (UK)
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus Tony Hepburn
Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor Tony Hepburn
*Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii Keith Salvesen / RH (National Park)
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus Keith Salvesen / RH (Backcountry Abaco)
Thick-billed Vireo Vireo crassirostris Susan Daughtrey
*Bahama Yellowthroat Geothlypis rostrata Tom Sheley
Western Spindalis Spindalis zena Janene Roessler
Greater Antillean Bullfinch Loxigilla violacea Bruce Hallett
‘Furtive’. ‘Secretive’. ‘Skulking’. These are harsh epithets to chuck at a small inoffensive bird that just goes about its daily routine in watery places. And look at it from the Sora’s point of view: ‘intrusive’; ‘prying’; invasive’; ‘nosy’… That’s you with your camera, disturbing its quiet life in the reeds and on the margins of marsh and lake. And for that matter your careful attempts to get close to the shy sora without startling it could also be described as furtive, secretive and skulking. See how it feels?
The Sora Porzana carolina is a species of rail, a winter resident on Abaco. The island also has the CLAPPER RAIL, Virginia Rail and the Black Rail. There are no recorded sightings of this last one, and certainly no photographs. But their distinctive call has been heard in several locations over the last few years – for example, by two people in different places last June when we were in full bird mode for “THE BIRDS OF ABACO”.
Although not uncommon, the sora is relatively hard to find; and if found, to photograph. As I wrote in the book, ‘these are most inconspicuous birds, so it is quite a coup if you manage to locate one. Their creamy beak and upturned tail may give their presence away as they work their way along the water’s edge, feeding intently’. Tom Sheley took the magnificent photo above of a sora peering out from cover – he’s a very patient man. Often, the best sight you’ll get is of the bird half-hidden in the reeds at a distance, as in my feeble effort above. Spot the Sora… I tracked the same bird, and later got a more open shot as the sora picked its way along the edge of a pond before disappearing again into the reeds. The bird was moving away from me. I was crouched on a small jetty, with a little blue heron nearby looking at me in puzzlement. Or sympathy. My best (ha!) shot below (beak and tail both visible? Check!) is followed by much the most usual view of a sora in my experience, the less photogenic end with the white… stern.
I can’t improve on good old Wiki in summarising the diet of this little rail: “Soras are omnivores, eating seeds, insects and snails. Animals that are commonly reported as sora food items include snails, crustaceans, spiders, and insects – mainly beetles, grasshoppers, flies, and dragonflies. Soras often eat plant seeds. Plants in the sora’s diet include duckweed, pondweeds, and grasses.” Wiki’s own image is shown next.
We were with our friend the ornithological scientist Caroline Stahala* when we – I should say she – saw my first sora at the pond at Gilpin Point near Crossing Rocks. She grabbed my camera and plunged into the rather thick undergrowth at the water’s edge. Actually, she had to plunge into the water itself at one stage. Here are 2 shots that further demonstrate how hard it can be to photograph these wretched creatures. They don’t pose prettily on a branch in the sunshine like a Spindalis, for example. They forage about in places where low light and thick vegetation combine to make focus and clarity difficult to achieve. *’The Parrot Lady’ The remarkable calls of the sora can be heard in the very short clips below, from the invaluable Xeno-Canto archive. They make three distinct types of sound, one described as “a descending whinny”. Apparently the use of ‘call broadcasts’ greatly increases the chances of hearing a sora. They also increase the chances of seeing a sora, as the bird will often investigate the source of the call. The propriety of using a recording to attract a bird is open to debate, but there’s no doubt that it can be far more effective than simply going ‘pish-wish’ repeatedly…CALL
Ted Floyd ‘WHINNY’ CALL Micah Riegner ‘WEEP CALL’ Todd Wilson This is a second Wiki image of a sora foraging in water. I like the fact that, as with Tom’s photo, you can see the feet.“SORA”. Where does the word come from? What does it mean? It sounds like some uninviting butter-style spread. Or is that ‘Flora’? I did some research and for a start it means ‘Sky’ in Japanese and ‘Seashell’ in Korean – both used as names. Six countries worldwide have places called Sora. There are various obscure usages (e.g. a little-known video game). Disappointingly, however, the best etymology I can find in a birding context is that the origin is ‘unknown’. I was too disheartened to explore the derivation of ‘Porzana’. Could so easily be a second-tier female character in a Shakespeare comedy: “Haply, Porzana, hast seen the Sora of the Prince, withal?”. Having started this post with a header shot by Becky Marvil, I’ll end with the etymological mystery and another photo by Becky of the same bird going for some underwater delicacy.
STOP PRESS Uli Nowlan has kindly sent a photo of a Sora taken at ponds north of Treasure Cay (below). It’s a timely reminder to me that this blog is somewhat South Abaco oriented. More than somewhat, in fact. That’s inevitable I’m afraid, owing to my base camp being south of MH. Also, I think it’s generally accepted that South Abaco is the place to find the best birding. I do include birds from the TC area – the golf course ponds and the creeks – but perhaps not enough. Contributions welcome!
Credits: Header and last image – Becky Marvil; Tom Sheley, RH, Wiki, Caroline Stahala; Uli Nowlan. Wiki-nod for some info also.
That is, essentially, because they are indeed Clappers. Rallus longirostris to be precise, or Clapper Rails. There are 4 rail species on Abaco, the Clapper being a permanent resident and not particularly uncommon. The others are the Virginia Rail and the Sora, both winter residents and less common (or in the Sora’s case, perhaps more furtive and less easy to find); and the Black Rail, which is generally agreed to be a ‘hypothetical’ for Abaco. That means they are believed to exist on Abaco but there are no confirmed sightings let alone any photos of one. However, last summer while we were taking a truck into the backcountry of South Abaco to locate hard-to-find birds for “The Birds of Abaco” book, the distinctive call of a Black Rail call was heard independently by two people on two different days in two different locations. I’ve heard another report since then. So they are out there somewhere, but keeping their heads down. The first to find one will have a considerable avian scoop!
Let’s start with some fabulous photographs by Tom Sheley. We used the first one in the book. By being patient, Tom managed to capture this bird having a quality preening session. Here are 4 shots from the sequence, including a rare one of the bird calling. To get the full glory of the detail, click on each image twice.
Clapper Rails are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. You may come across one foraging secretively in the mud. Although they can both swim and fly, they prefer to keep both feet on the ground.When running, these rails look endearingly comical.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. That is to say, mankind. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out.
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, probably dating from early in WW2. Some suggest it is a rhyming slam bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell.
STOP PRESS Uli Nowlan has sent her photo of a Clapper Rail, taken at the ponds north of Treasure Cay – a reminder that there is good birding to be done in that area of North Abaco – the bird action is not confined to South Abaco below MH…
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger and Becky Marvil – plus Uli Nowlan
The Clapper Rail features in “The Delphi Club Guide to the Birds of Abaco” by Keith Salvesen pp 80 – 81
ABACO: A SANDY ISLAND (SANDY BEACHES, A SANDY POINT AND A SANDY WALKER)
This post features some great Abaco bird photos taken by Sandy Walker, a man familiar to anyone connected with the Delphi Club in any capacity at all, and well-known far and wide from Marsh Harbour to Ireland. Possibly notorious in some places… Sandy doesn’t talk about his photography much, though he has plenty to say on most topics. Here are a few of his photos taken in the last 6 months or so, and deserving a wider audience. The header image, from the Delphi garden, shows a Bananaquit in characteristic feeding mode.
A great picture of feeding time, with the huge chick already seeming to have outgrown the parent – apart from its rather stumpy tail
These shy birds are reclusive by nature and relatively hard to photograph. They tend to lurk in the undergrowth or half-hidden on water margins. If they are caught in the open, they tend to run in a somewhat cartoonish sort of way. This one was having a good dig in the mud for food.
Large birds of the shoreline and mangrove swamps, and classed with sandpipers. In flight, they have eye-catching wing stripes that Sandy has captured with a bit of camera sharp-shooting. You can see more Willets HERE
I was with Sandy when he took this photo during an amazing early evening feeding display of these birds. A hundred or more were swooping and jinking, making the most of an evening fly hatch. Sometimes they flew very close to our heads, make a whirring sound as they passed. Their speed and jagging flight made them very hard to take. I hardly got one in my viewfinder at all, but Sandy is an excellent shot of a different sort, so I guess aiming isn’t a problem for him…
I love these handsome birds, distinguishable from all other white herons and egrets (in some cases as white morphs) by their astonishing bright yellow feet. These are so vivid that they are often clearly visible when a snowy egret is standing in the water. This one was taken by the jetty at a local pond, a wonderful and secluded place to see water birds of many varieties, including rarities.
All images (except this one): Sandy Walker, with thanks