Checking on the Clapper Rails

Back in the early Spring I found those Randy Clapper Rails at a pool in Surfside and I promised to go back and see if there were any chicks later in the year. We have been looking in likely places and habitats and have seen quiet a few adults, but no chicks until just recently. 

The pond where we saw the mating Clapper Rails has been way too full of water for wading birds due to our overly rainy Spring. In that marsh area there are now no mud flats, no shore, just water half-way up the reeds. So far this year we have had almost 30 inches (76 cm) of rain, which is twice as much as we had this time last year. If you were watching the news, we got almost 10 of those inches (25.4 cm) in one night.  And it is still raining - too much, too often. Now, we have to be concerned with rising rivers from all the runoff north of here. 

But, I can report we finally found some chicks!

Clapper Rail family crossing the road Photo taken from inside truck through dirty windshield on a really cloudy day

Clapper Rail family crossing the road

Photo taken from inside truck through dirty windshield on a really cloudy day

This little family was crossing the road in front of us while we were literally focusing on some Dowitchers in a favorite spot near Surfside. I jumped out of the truck after snapping this through the windshield, but they were long gone into the marsh.

Clapper Rail and crab dinner Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/6.3 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Clapper Rail and crab dinner

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/6.3 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

That day I did find one of the adults with a tasty crab for her babies. The chicks leave the nest the day after hatching but cannot fly for nine or ten weeks. And are extremely vulnerable to predators, getting lost or separated from the group. They are solid black with a white mark on their tiny beaks, and seem to blend in with the shadows. 

The chick photos from that day were not good; too far away, too many obstructions and we were wary of getting close and disrupting the family dynamics.  

Then, on another day we found this lone Clapper Rail just after a bath. I was surprised how dark it looked, but that was because it was soaking wet. 

Clapper Rail near Surfside just after a bath Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6  1/1000 sec ISO 1600

Clapper Rail near Surfside just after a bath

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6  1/1000 sec ISO 1600

There was a lot of flapping and fluffing. After a bit more preening and attention, it was looking more familiar.

A few more shakes and twists. We were sitting on our milk crates, cameras on tripods and enjoying the chance to photograph a nice big bird up close. Well, Clapper Rails are the size of a small chicken but after chasing all those cute little warblers, it was great to choose to focus on the head or eye.  That songbird kind of photography is hard and intense. 

The bird finished preening and turned to walk back to the reeds. The show was over... or so I thought.

 Clapper Rails and .... nsfw photo Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6  1/800 sec ISO 1600

 Clapper Rails and .... nsfw photo

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6  1/800 sec ISO 1600

Out of nowhere, a male appeared and started mating with the newly washed and obviously female bird.  No rituals or calls or courtship. Maybe they knew each other already; I have no idea.

I couldn't say if it was successful; but after a short while she moved away and he tried to grab her neck but then gave up and left. She was totally wet again after all that careful preening and attention to her feathers. She then turned and followed the male into the tall vegetation. 

We moved around to the side trying to find them and stumbled upon an adult with a couple of little chicks.  My photos of the pair were blocked by low vegetation but we knew there were chicks about and perhaps more eggs to be laid. 

Adult Clapper Rail with two chicks learning to eat crabs Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/1000 sec ISO 1250

Adult Clapper Rail with two chicks learning to eat crabs

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/1000 sec ISO 1250

And then on May 24 we found adults and chicks in three different locations around Surfside. I have so many good photos it is hard to choose! This adult, probably a female, has pulled a crab from the vegetation for the chicks to feed on. She would often remove the big claws and break up the body for them to eat. But, both adults will feed the chicks, so they could be learning what to eat from the male.

Baby carrying bit of crab. He dropped it a couple of times in the shallow water before eating. Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/1000 sec ISO 1250

Baby carrying bit of crab. He dropped it a couple of times in the shallow water before eating.

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/1000 sec ISO 1250

The chicks leave the nest soon after hatching and can swim, dive and forage on small prey right away. You would think the black chicks would be so noticeable, but in the bright green vegetation, they look like shadows. 

Baby Clapper Rail on nest Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/8  1/640 sec ISO 1000

Baby Clapper Rail on nest

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/8  1/640 sec ISO 1000

We had been watching an adult bring crabs to 5 little chicks when we noticed this one perched on what could be a nest. It wasn't 10 feet from the road and I have read sometimes birds build a 'brood nest' for the young to rest in separate from the nest where they were hatched. This makes sense and you could speculate this little guy felt threatened by two photographers pointing long lenses at him and headed for safety.

I like to imagine they all get into the nest with an adult at night or during bad weather.

Baby Clapper Rail with crab Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/1000 sec ISO 1250

Baby Clapper Rail with crab

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/7.1  1/1000 sec ISO 1250

Just one more of this tiny chick with his crab. You can see the eyes of the crab in this shot. Baby birds are all adorable, I know. These are so interesting because they are actively learning how to find food. They would follow the adult, and at her sharp call retreat to the high grasses and disappear. We watched one follow the adult across the road (I was ready to stop traffic if necessary) and then sit down on the pavement half-way. It is hard work, being a baby bird.

Have you seen any baby birds this year? Did you worry about the birds and their offspring during our recent storms? Let me know in the comments below.