‘LIKE’ THE CLAPPERS: ON THE RAILS IN ABACO


Clapper Rail preening, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

‘LIKE’ THE CLAPPERS: ON THE RAILS IN ABACO

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.

Clapper Rail stretching.Abaco Bahamas - Tom Sheley ("The Birds of Abaco" by Keith Salvesen, p80)

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 Rail rousing.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

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. 

Clapper Rail running, Abaco Bahamas (Erik Gauger))

Clapper Rail running, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

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).

Clapper Rail preening.Abaco Bahamas.3.12.Tom Sheley copy

CLAPPER RAILS ON ABACO: A SMALL SHOWCASE


Clapper Rail, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley / Birds of Abaco)

CLAPPER RAILS ON ABACO: A SMALL SHOWCASE

Just over 3 years ago, THE BIRDS OF ABACO was 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.

Clapper Rail, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley / Birds of Abaco)

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.

Clapper Rail, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley / Birds of Abaco)

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…

Clapper Rail, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley / Birds of Abaco)

Photos by Tom Sheley – with thanks for the adventures