Certainly the most difficult North American family of birds to see, let alone photograph, are the Rails. While there are some 139 species of Ralidae worldwide, WC in this post focuses on the six “true” North American Rails.1 WC has photos of five of them – for a given definition of “photo” – and is highly unlikely (to the point of near certainty) to ever see let alone photograph the sixth. But that’s getting ahead of the tale.
By far the least difficult – WC wouldn’t say “easy” – Rail to photograph is the Sora. Unlike other Rails, it occasionally actually comes out into the open, especially when foraging to feed its young. The big, bright yellow bill and black chin and neck make the species unmistakeable in the field. It’s very widely distributed, found all across the continent and even in parts of Alaska. But like all Rails, you’ll hear it far more often than you will see it. The species takes its common name from one of its vocalizations, and not the strangest one, either.
Another comparatively easy Rail to find, the Clapper Rail is a saltwater and brackish marsh specialist. It’s easily twice the size of a Sora, but still has that uncanny ability to vanish into reeds and grasses. The red eye and long, decurved bill make identification fairly easy, but the specialized habitat makes it easier still. WC usually sees this species dashing across mudflats, between patches of concealing vegetation.
Until 2014, this was regarded as a subspecies of Clapper Rail, with whom it shares a number of traits, including habitat preferences. It was split from Clapper Rail in 2014, and today is a near-threatened species confined to the coastal marshes of Central and Southern California and, possibly, still found in the now-dry delta of the Colorado River. Habitat loss has decimated this species. There are believed to be only about 3,000 birds remaining in what was once a fairly common species.
Another Rail species heard much more often than seen, Virginia Rail pairs communicate by loud, squeaky grunt calls, although that’s a small part of their surprising vocal repertoire. While the range of this species overlaps with the Clapper Rail, Virginias are much smaller, with more extensive gray on the face and somewhat more red in the bill. Unusually for a Rail, this species is known to swim underwater. And it builds many “dummy” nests as part of concealing the location of its real nest.
This is a mostly fresh water marsh specialist, found along the Eastern and Gulf Coasts and partway up the Mississippi River Valley. It’s just barely the largest of the North American Rails. King Rail populations have declined alarmingly in the past 50 years. The species is now listed as threatened or endangered in 12 eastern and Midwestern states, as well as in Canada. In response to these declines, research has shown that populations in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River valleys, as well as the midwestern states, are particularly scarce. The population declines likely related to the direct loss of wetlands, but evidence also indicates that King Rails are very sensitive to human-caused broad-scale changes in hydrological regimes.
The Yellow Rail might be the most widely distributed, least frequently seen bird species in North America. Its breeding range extends the length of the Mississippi Valley, and across much of Canada. It winters across the Gulf Coast and Florida. But its secretive habits, excellent camouflage and small size make it very difficult to observe. WC got a few bad photos like this one in a survey effort in 2012, but hasn’t seen the species since. Even though it is documented as present in Idaho.
The sixth species of North American Rail is the Black Rail. It’s possible someday WC will see and photograph this species. But the chances are close enough to zero to make no difference. WC doesn’t want to talk about it.
1 Technically, the Gallinules (Common and Purple) and even the lowly America Coot are members of the Ralidae. But to WC, those aren’t “true” Rails.