The Quest for the Holy Rail

The Black Rail is an especially elusive and challenging subject for birders, conservationists, and land managers. This sparrow-sized bird is described as ‘the most secretive bird in North America’, a white whale among feathered beasts because it spends most of its time running underneath thick vegetation in coastal and interior marshes. It acts more like a mouse than a bird, and to make matters worse, rails are crepuscular (become active at twilight), and vocalize primarily after the sun has gone down or a few hours before it rises the following morning.

Female Eastern Black Rail in South Carolina, USA. (Photo: Christy Hand, South Carolina DNR, taken under SCDNR research permit BB-20-06).

High marshes are characterized by infrequent tidal inundation and are dominated by a mix of cordgrass, pickleweed, saltgrass, or black rush.

The inability to detect rails reliably has led to knowledge gaps in their conservation and management needs, but one issue is clear―the rail is in steep decline. A population loss of at least 75% over the past 10−20 years is estimated for the eastern Black Rail, the sub-species that lives in the Florida panhandle year-round. The declines, coupled with habitat fragmentation and future projections of severe habitat loss as sea levels rise, have led to designation of the rail as an Endangered Species, and underscored the need for better management information.

Fire suppression is another factor that may be affecting rails. Fire suppression has shifted plant communities that rails depend on, allowing undesirable shrubs and small trees to encroach into once suitable habitat. However, there are a lot of questions regarding the timing, frequency, and size of burns. Burning during critical periods when birds are nesting or when they are temporarily flightless from molting may increase mortality of both chicks and adults. There is a critical need to understand the ‘sweet spot’ of burning that will best improve habitat while decreasing direct threats to the birds.

As part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Firebird project, a multi-state effort studying waterbirds along the Gulf, the Stoddard Bird Lab will be getting our feet wet and muddy to study Black Rails across six Florida counties. The study stretches from the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge in Levy County to St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Gulf County; our focus is to assess the effects of prescribed fire on rail habitat use.

We are currently monitoring four prescribed fires conducted in coastal wetlands this past year, and additional burns will be added to help determine appropriate return intervals. Understanding when these communities would have naturally burned, how frequently, and in what sizes and patterns will help us restore high-quality habitat. In addition, we will be testing different calls used during surveys to increase detection rates, as well as banding birds in the study area to get a better idea of distribution, population size, and habitat use.

Stoddard Bird Lab member Destinee Story Braden measuring vegetation in a very tall patch of black rush.

Our long-term goal is to create a monitoring and management plan for Black Rails along the Gulf Coast using adaptive management, a process of conducting habitat management, monitoring responses, and adjusting management based on the response and the insights of stake-holders that include managers, decision-makers, and researchers. This dynamic scientific process allows for flexibility across the board and a great collaborative effort across the Gulf states. The Black Rail may have been quietly slipping under the radar, but with the help of many dedicated folks, we hope to put a bit more light on many of the conservation challenges facing this elusive bird.

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