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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

April 28, 2012
Chesapeake and Delaware Canal for Rails and Nightbirds


The 2012 rail trip was an unqualified success and definitely one of the best nights that I’ve spent birding the Thousand Acre Marsh and its neighboring habitats. Four of us spent the hours before dawn listening to various nocturnal birds. Brian Henderson rode down with me and in no time at all Bob Shaffer and Gail Johnson met us under the Reedy Point Bridge at 3:30AM. We geared up and headed southwest along Dutch Neck Rd. To our right, a Great Blue Heron roosted under a light post in the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. To our left, silhouettes of reeds and trees gave way to a view of the open water. No wind disturbed the scene. A clear moonless sky filled with stars towered out overhead. At times a singing Marsh Wren or Swamp Sparrow broke the stillness until the embarrassingly loud Canada Geese called from the marsh.

We stood and waited, listening. In the distance, a Virginia Rail ticked away, calling, "kikik ik-ik ik-ik.” A Sora called only to be followed by more Sora calls, whinnying in the dark. We would count at least four Soras here. A Northern Mockingbird began to sing. At least two more Virginia Rails grunted from the far bank. We tried to entice a Common Gallinule to join the evening’s performance, but got no response. Spring Peepers sang in the distance.

Excited at the ease with which we were picking up species, we moved on to our next spot. My plan was to try to find Common Gallinule at the overlook near the intersection of DE 9 and Reedy Point Road before crossing Route 9 to listen for King Rail calling from the tidal marshes of Augustine WMA. We stood at the edge of the Thousand Acre Marsh and I played a recording of Common Gallinule, but we heard no response. I tried again without any luck. During the next attempt, I cut the recording as we could hear King Rails calling from the other side of the Reedy Point Bridge. We stood and listened to their performance, counting at least seven different King Rail calling – probably more.

Our trip now had ticked off Virginia Rail, Sora and King Rail with ridiculous ease, and we didn’t even have to cross Route 9 to hear the King Rails! We were only missing Common Gallinule from the list of the usual suspects for the area. In 2011, Common Gallinule had been the only waterbird for the area that we were unable to hear (though those who went to Bombay Hook NWR saw one there afterwards). I decided to change tactics and played a Sora call. In short order, we added two more Sora for the list, but more importantly a Common Gallinule called in response to the Soras. We’d now encountered all the expected waterbirds for the area and it was not even 4:30AM.

We headed to Grier’s Pond where the Southern Leopard Frogs and Spring Peepers were holding their own concert. Three Soras called, and a Virginia Rail got caught up in the spirit of things. We played a recording of Least Bittern and immediately a Least Bittern called from the direction of the barn at the back of the pond. As the sky began to fill with predawn light, more and more voices added to the chorus: 16 Common Yellowthroats, 3 White-throated Sparrows, 5 Northern Cardinals, 2 reluctant Red-winged Blackbirds, 2 American Robins, 16 Marsh Wrens, 4 Carolina Wrens and 2 calling Mallards. Often, we stay at the Thousand Acre Marsh through the dawn chorus, but we decided to head south with the intention of seeing a King Rail from a location I had discovered last year.

We arrived at that spot (which I call King Rail Island) and things were unfortunately quiet. As the sun rose, activity levels did as well. We spotted 14 Cliff Swallows, an adult Little Blue Heron, over 200 Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, 5 Glossy Ibis, Ospreys and Bald Eagles. The marsh and surrounding areas filled with song: Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat. Gulls flew overhead. I played a King Rail recording, and the marsh erupted into calling King Rails all around us. At least six different King Rails were calling. Bob Shaffer spotted one flying in. We birded the area and tracked the movements of a King Rail that was tantalizingly close but too well hidden to be seen. Eventually, we gave up and started walking to the cars. We’d just crossed to the other side of a tidal creek when Gail Johnson spotted a King Rail in the open maybe fifteen feet from the road. This female King Rail made several close appearances, allowing excellent views. Despite the less than ideal lighting conditions, I also managed to take several dozen photos of the bird. Feeling quite satisfied, we got in our cars only to have the King Rail cross the road in front of us, putting in one final encore performance.

Brian Henderson and I then made our way to Bombay Hook. Gail Johnson, who had needed to stop off to get gas before continuing down to the refuge, later joined us at Shearness Pool. At Bombay Hook, we added American Coots and Clapper Rails to our list. One particular Clapper Rail stood out in the open on the tidal mudflats opposite Shearness Pool. Other notable species from the Bombay Hook extension included Tundra Swan, Blue-winged Teal, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, Caspian Tern, American Pipit, Horned Lark, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat and Seaside Sparrow. Brian and I also found a male Yellow Warbler that was singing Prothonotary Warbler song at the trail to the Raymond Observation Tower. Unfortunately, the early start and lack of sleep caught up to me by Bear Swamp, and I had to call it quits and head home at that point. We ended the day with a total of 95 species.