YELLOW RAIL in McGregor Marsh, Aitkin County, Minnesota. June 13, 2019

Okay, so I was home and in my own bed by midnight, but “10:44 pm in the McGregor Marsh” isn’t quite as catchy as the title, “Midnight Madness.”

It has been about 30 years since I’ve actually SEEN a Yellow Rail (one of Kim Eckert’s multi-birder late-night Yellow Rail “round up” in the 80s). 

Yellow Rails are one of the most secretive birds in North America, and only nest in localized sedge marshes in MN, ND, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan (and a few other isolated spots). Seven were calling last night (June 13). The rails are only the size of a softball, and they walk around under the cattails…usually. A tape of another male, or clicking two rocks together to imitate their call can elicit a vocal response. But they are used to semi-close neighbors so you have to be in the heart of their territory for them to come out from beneath the sedges/cattails.

Access to the McGregor Marsh is difficult, but an old railroad grade (now an ATV trail) runs through it off MN65. It is a vast sedge marsh, which is the vegetation Yellow Rails prefer.
First glimpses of the elusive YELLOW RAIL. They are only the size of a softball and usually scurry around like mice UNDER the downed layer of sedges and old cattails.

Thanks to my friend Kim Risen who suggested a place in the Marsh to start listening. He has heard and seen many more in the area this spring/summer. Good year for Yellow Rails! They are dependent on proper water levels.

I waded into the marsh at sunset (about 9:15pm) wearing knee-high rubber boots with rain bibs over the top. One bird was calling just off the trail but quit. The McGregor Marsh is a floating mat of sedges and cattails in ankle- to calf-deep water. Good thing I’d laced myself with Deep Woods Off (25%DEET) since the mosquitos were thick.
This rail was calling on and off (sometimes as close as 6 feet away!) but it took 1.5 hours to actually see him in the sedge marsh (in the full company of mosquito hordes, and stumbling around in waders). A powerful flashlight aided in the search. I would sit in the marsh, click my rocks and wait. If he called, I’d sweep the area briefly with my flashlight. 
It was very dark by 10:30 pm when I started photographing him. This Yellow Rail was so calm that he called, preened, and even tucked his head into his back feathers and slept all within 15 feet of me. I only stayed with him for about 15 minutes.

SEE VIDEO OF YELLOW RAIL CALLING, PREENING, SLEEPING HERE

But it took me 15 minutes more to find my backpack (including my car keys!), which I had left laying in the marsh when I started tracking this Yellow Rail. Home by midnight!

Sony A6500 and Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; f5.6 at 1/60; ISO 1600; pop-up flash and flashlight for illumination.

Yellow Rail male in northern Minnesota’s McGregor Marsh; June 13, 2019; 10:15-10:45pm
This little guy got so comfortable with me only 10 feet away that he actually would preen and even tuck his head in his back feathers and fall asleep!
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