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).
‘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