Randy Clapper Rails

Randy Clapper Rails

Remember I told you I finally got a smart phone? After resisting FOREVAH, I cancelled my land line and now only have the cell phone. A Galaxy Note 4 and ... it is fun. One great app I have is Sibley Birds of North America. I don't really use it for identification or filling out a life list, but it is very useful for bird calls. 

Now, using calls is a bit controversial in the birding world. Some purists consider it unethical and detrimental to birds. Most people draw the line at using recordings that could be considered as harassment or endangering birds - such as distracting nesting birds. In my opinion, short snippets of sound to lure a specified bird into the open can be quite productive.

Recently my fave photographer Bill Maroldo and I headed south on a foggy/overcast day. We knew Clapper Rails to be in the marshy pools at Surfside; we had photographed them several times before. This time we set up our tripods and milk crates at the edge of a small pond. There were some road repairs going on just down the street and my recorded calls weren't going to be any more disruptive to the birds than the back-up signals, engine noises and occasional loud talking in the area. 

The Clapper Rail Memorial Pond at Surfside - it was quite foggy that day Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

The Clapper Rail Memorial Pond at Surfside - it was quite foggy that day

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

We had stopped because we saw two Clapper Rails fly up in a bit of a squabble and there were several Lesser Yellowlegs cruising around the pond. 

Lesser Yellowlegs cruising the pond Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Lesser Yellowlegs cruising the pond

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

These guys feed by swinging their bills back and forth in the water, almost as if they are tasting. And then he had company.

Two Yellowlegs Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

Two Yellowlegs

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

Another Yellowlegs joined him. I thought this was a Greater Yellowlegs as he was larger. But I saw a positively Greater Yellowlegs last week and so now I am not so sure. He was a bit heavier and somewhat bigger than the first, but looking at all my photos, I can see the water level is about the same on each bird's legs... Maybe a youngster and adult. Male and female? or just fluffed up more. Birding is such a challenge. 

While we were photographing the Yellowlegs... a Clapper Rail appeared at the edge of the reeds. They are also known as marsh hens, and are fairly large birds, with long toes and big feet. And secretive and shy and hard to photograph.

Clapper Rail comes out from the reeds to show himself Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/640 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

Clapper Rail comes out from the reeds to show himself

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/640 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

He quickly crossed the pond and disappeared. Their coloring perfectly matches the surrounding vegetation; two strides into the reeds and he was invisible. We were thrilled to get photos of a Clapper Rail out in the open, usually you just get obstructed shots as they scurry away.

So, we decided to see if they would respond to the calls. We played some calls and waited. After a short while, one that came out on our left was so close we could barely focus. My telephoto lens minimum focus length is 4.5 feet, but Bill uses a Sony 500mm f/4 lens and it needs about 13 feet. The rail slipped out of the reeds and crossed directly in front of us, not 5 feet away. I think we both just watched in amazement. I got some blurry shots as he completely filled the frame. He moved surprisingly fast.

After a bit, we tried the calls again. Two peeked out of the reeds to the right, and then looked us over. They continued to move in the open area next to the water's edge, affording me some really great shots. 

Clapper Rail checking out the sounds... Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Clapper Rail checking out the sounds...

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

One of the pair moved back into the reeds, the other crossed the water and ... proceeded to take a bath!

Preening feathers after several dips and dunks Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Preening feathers after several dips and dunks

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

He (or she as they look identical) dunked and splashed and preened. I was in heaven. Clapper Rails standing around and practically posing, and now a bath!

You might notice I have upped the ISO considerably to get a faster shutter speed at this point. The left side of the pond was considerably darker than where the bird had been posing nicely on the right.

We had been sporadically playing calls and occasionally we heard them answer hidden in the reeds. And the real calls were much deeper and louder than any of the recordings. And then things got really interesting!

Female calling.... and calling. and calling.... Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/640 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Female calling.... and calling. and calling....

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/640 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

What turned out to be a female slipped out of the reeds to our left and started calling loudly. And called for at least 5 seconds, then waited a bit. Her call was rewarded.

A male answers her call.. Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

A male answers her call..

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Now, I am about beside myself. It is fairly dark on that side of the pond and ISO 1600 is just the limit for a good image. I keep clicking the shutter and praying the shutter speed is fast enough. I have no idea what they will do next.

And...this is it, ya'll Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

And...this is it, ya'll

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

The male stands on her back, submerging her for a few moments. She gets her head up and they are both making more racket than you can imagine. Bird sex generally involves maneuvering until their cloacas touch and the sperm is transferred from the male. It is called the cloacal kiss. And it doesn't last very long.

Clapper Rails are year-round residents on our Texas Gulf Coast; obviously breeding has started and chicks have been observed as early as the end of March. They will build nests elevated above the high tides, but still hidden by emergent vegetation or in shrubs. And she will lay one egg a day; usually 7-14 buff colored eggs. The chicks are black and can swim and forage after a few short days in the nest.

Clapper Rail mom-to-be (note the mud on her back from the encounter) Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Clapper Rail mom-to-be (note the mud on her back from the encounter)

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

This is the first year we have explored this side of the Intracoastal Canal at Surfside for Clapper Rails , but you know I will be back looking for babies. In March, for sure.

Related Adventures: Summer Day at Surfside; Outrunning the Cold FrontThe World of Instagram

Did the title warn you this was all about sex and NSFW? Well, bird porn is not exactly that risque, I guess. Let's just call it scientific documentation. What do you think?

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