Monday, October 20, 2008

Chet Baker, Rail Hunter

Bill and I have been keeping a bird list for our property since we moved here in 1992. It's bulging with improbables. Now that we've both become fairly serious photographers, getting a new species is ever so much more exciting, because of course we want to document each one in the worst way! I was taking some clothes in off the line on Sunday afternoon, October 19, 2008, when Chet Baker went snuffling around and around a little spreading blue spruce by our tiny water garden just off the patio. I figured he had a bunneh or chiptymunk in there and would soon rout it. "Got a bunneh, Chet Baker?" Snuffle, snuffle. Suddenly there was a rush and a snort from Chet and a bird burst out and flew right up beside me, giving a sharp Keek!Keek!Keek! It landed and strutted around like a tiny chicken. A Virginia rail. Number 183 for our property list.

My eyes bugged out of my head. I was so proud of my doggeh, because the second he realized he had a bird and not a small brown mammal (who wouldn't think a rail was a mammal?) he stopped dead in his tracks and stayed right there by the spruce, several yards away. "That's Mether's bird, Chet," I intoned softly, but he already knew that. He was rooted to the spot. Now. I do not normally take my camera out to bring in the laundry, though I should during migration, for Pete's sake. This place is Eden.

What to do? Luckily, it was a warm afternoon, and the windows were thrown open. I sensed that if I eased off to get the camera, the rail would take that opportunity to bolt for cover. It was watching me, watching it.

"PHOEEEEEEBEEEEE?" I called, praying she wasn't in the farthest corner of the house.

And my sprites, both of 'em, came romping around the corner with the camera.

"Stop right there--see the Virginia rail by the hose cart?"

"Oooooh! He's so CUUUUUTE!" (They have seen both Virginia and sora rails in North Dakota).

"OK. Go wide and bring me the camera and we'll document this."
And she did, circled around behind me and handed me the camera.

The rail crept behind the hose cart and crouched down behind the wheel.
Oh, how sweet. He was lying on his stomach. No wonder you can't find them when you want to.

But soon his nerves got to him and he flutter-ran out into the open again, looking for better cover.
I clicked madly with the short lens, which happened to be the one on the camera at the time. I was shooting right into the contrasty afternoon sun and the rail was just a silhouette. With a lot of post-doctoring, I opened up this shot, to show you his lovely coloration.
This one's much nicer--he's lightfooting by the last black-eyed Susan of the season, right next to our little pond, the sun coming through his coral bill. Ahhh. A rail. In our yard. What are the chances? Zip to nil, that's what. This is a bird, a marsh bird, a wetland/shore bird, that we could never in a million years hope to see or add to our property list up here on this dry old ridgetop, but for The Bacon.
The rail streaked under the spruce again, and then lit out for the big rough meadow where we'd never find him again. As soon as he was in good cover, only the quivering grasses to show where he was running, we ran to the front yard, high-fiving and yelling with joy. Chet Baker romped and leapt, knowing he'd done well. He'd found his first new species for the place.
Chet Baker, Rail Hunter, Respecter of Birdlife, New Species Finder. He earns his keep around here. He is getting some rump roast and gravy tonight! But then, he'd get that anyway, just for being Chet Baker, Best Doggeh on the Planet. I'm tempted to add Most Beautiful but some saluki or Italian greyhound or lab or golden retriever owner might dispute that, and we'd be off again.

Just for fun, here are the last ten new species for the place, with dates they were recorded. Remember, we're about 13 miles in from any significant body of water, and that's just the muddy ol' Ohio River, so the water birds are the toughest to get. The wide spread in dates--it took us eight years to get those last ten species!!--shows you how dicey the going gets once you top 175 species for an inland site in Ohio.

Property list additions to date:

#173 Eurasian Collared-dove 3/25/00 (first record for State of Ohio, but not accepted. Someone turned in one that got shot in the mourning dove hunt that fall and the rare records committee accepted the dessicated corpse as evidence. My painting wouldn't do. Oh well. What do I know about bird ID?)
#174 Golden Eagle 3/29/00 (an immature circling over the tower, caught on video! and in watercolor on the frontispiece of Letters from Eden.
#175 Sedge Wren 5/08/00 (we've had another since then, singing its head off in the meadow)
#176 Black Ducks (25) 12/22/00
#177 WW Crossbill 4/15/02-(bathing in the bird bath! a female, ugly as sin.)
#178 Black-crowned Night-heron 10/13/02 (six flew over for Big Sit-that was COOOL!)
#179 Tundra Swans-40!!-12/5/02-(spotted by Phoebe headed straight east. Bill id’d them.)
#180 Common Raven 3/15/03 (flew over, honking. We've had 3 more records since, 2 in the spring of '08)
#181 Saw-whet Owl 11/09/04 (we've had another record since then, and expect more)
#182 Black-bellied Plover flock of eight, 5/18/06 (Bill saw them fly by our mailbox!)
#183 Virginia Rail 10/19/08 (Chet Baker gets credit for this one.)

What will be next?? Only the Fates know.

ZICK ALERT: Tuesday night, October 21, I will speak in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of Hartford Audubon's Wildlife Series. I'll be at McAuley Residence Auditorium, 275 Steele Road, West Hartford, Connecticut, at 7 p.m. Yep, I'm on the road again.

For more information, email

It feels amazing to be coming back to Connecticut in a professional way, after having lived there from 1981-1991. Oddly enough, I haven't spoken in the state, or worked a nature festival in Connecticut in the ensuing 17 years. Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, yes, but not the Ol' Rock. So happy to be invited back. I'm looking forward to seeing some old friends and family. If you're anywhere near, please come say hello after blurting, "BLOG!"

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