Posts tagged ‘Yellow Rail’

Yellow Rail—Midnight Madness in the McGregor Marsh (VIDEO calling, preening, sleeping)

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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Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh

My road trip in late June led me from Wrenshall, Minnesota to a place I’d long wanted to visit. It is called Oak Hammock Marsh and it is about 30 minutes north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. This is how their website describes it…”Oak Hammock Marsh is one of North America’s birding hotspots and a great destination for people of all ages. This 36km2 Wildlife Management Area features a restored prairie marsh, aspen-oak bluff, waterfowl lure crops, artesian springs, some of Manitoba’s last remaining patches of tall-grass prairie and 30 kilometers of trails for you to explore. …the Interpretive Centre features wheelchair-accessible facilities including a 120-seat multimedia theatre, a scenic café, a gift shop, meeting rooms, rooftop observation deck, and interactive exhibits.” Visit their website for a bird list and more info.

sign Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0340

Oak Hammock Marsh Nature Center Manitoba IMG_0109

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0164American Avocet [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 320; tripod]

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0072American Avocet pair [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 125; tripod]

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0104American Avocet pair [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 125; tripod]

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0085American Avocet pair [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 125; tripod]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0404Black Tern over algae-splotched marsh

Killdeer nest Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0369Can you spot the Killdeer eggs? Yes, this is all the “nest” they need…just a scrape in the dirt of a parking pad. They prefer spots with much rocks-gravel in order to provide camouflage to their splotched eggs.

Killdeer nest Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0358Mom Killdeer is sitting tight to her nest as I crawl closer and closer. She eventually pops off the nest and tries to lure the vicious predator (me) away from her nest with a “broken-wing” display. I didn’t want to stress her unduly so I moved on. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/250 at f8; ISO 100; pop-up flash -2 2/3ev; hand-held while crawling on my belly]

Purple Martin nest box house Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0095It was good to see a very active Purple Martin nest box near the edge of the marsh. It is an all too rare sight in Minnesota these days. Purple Martins are actually giant swallows who feast on aerial insects, often near water.

Yellow-headed Blackbird Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0264Yellow-headed Blackbirds are rare in northeastern Minnesota, so it is a treat to see them and hear their raspy “song.” They actually outcompete Red-winged Blackbirds and claim the safer nest sites deep in the cattails forcing Red-wings to nest at the margins of the marsh.

American Coot and juvenile IMG_0190 - Version 2Adult Coot feeding one of her two colorful young.

Marsh Wren Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0203Marsh Wren in the cattails [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 100; hand-held]

Marsh Wren Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0207Marsh Wrens are very well named as they nest smack dab in the middle of dense stands of marsh cattails. Their “sewing machine” song (sounds like an old treadle sewing machine) rattles from many territorial birds along the walkways. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1000 at f6.3; ISO 100; hand-held]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0323Black Tern’s wings are paler than their jet black body. You really need at least 1/1600 of a second shutter speed to freeze the motion of the wings of terns and gulls in flight. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1600 at f6.3; ISO 200; hand-held]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0239Black Tern

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0205Black Terns are quite rare in northeastern Minnesota, so it was a real treat to see this large colony. They don’t dive and plunge into the water like many of the “white terns” but rather delicately pluck aquatic critters and tiny fish off the surface. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

Ranunculus aquatilis White Water Crowfoot Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0284White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) grows in the sluggish backwaters of the marsh.

Northern Shoveler hen flight Oak Hammock Marsh Selkirk MB IMG_0340Northern Shoveler hen in flight

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0647Not a great photo…But my best photo ever of a Nelson’s “Sharp-tailed” Sparrow. This shy cattail-lover is rarely seen in migration and nests in sedge and cattail marshes from north-central Minnesota (McGregor Marsh) up to northern Saskatchewan. Other populations nest along saltwater in NE North America and along Hudson’s Bay. Their subtle song has been described as someone dousing a hot poker in a vat of oil…and that’s about right. This guy appeared at dusk. The “tick-ticking” of a Yellow Rail joined several singing LeConte’s Sparrows as a big thunderhead rolled on south of me. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/60 at f5.6; ISO 1000; pop-up flash -2 2/3ev; hand-held]

LeConte's Sparrow Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0639LeConte’s Sparrows were “dirt common” in the northwest portion of Oak Hammock. They are fairly common in my home ground of the Sax-Zim Bog but this was amazing! Every wet meadow seemed to hold several. Photo taken at dusk. This is a fairly “noisy” photo because it was shot at ISO 2000(!) but it nicely shows the habitat and orangey color of this not-oft-seen bird. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/125 at f5.6; ISO 2000; pop-up flash -2 2/3ev; hand-held]

IMG_0187 I found this canid skull in the marsh. I love finding skulls as it is really the ultimate track of an animal.

Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0299

Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0297This impressive multi-million dollar building is also the Headquarters of Ducks Unlimited Canada. The marsh buts right up to the walls and you can watch Black Terns and ducks right from the windows.

IMG_0307The mission of the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre is to connect people with wetlands and they do it via outdoor activities and indoor displays and classes.