Photographing the Black Rail

(A friendly competition between good friends Bob Gress and David Seibel, told from Bob’s perspective)

Part 1: The Story of Three Bad Photos

Bob Gress on a Black Rail huntI’m not even sure anymore when the Black Rail became my photographic nemesis. It entered my consciousness many years ago when I became aware of their presence at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. I don’t even remember who identified the strange call for me that was coming from the flooded meadow, but as with nearly everyone, my early encounters were all “sounds only.” Eventually, after many years of hearing the kee-kee-der in the marsh, a glimpse of a tiny black form darting through the cattails was my first official sighting. Over the next ten years I may have accumulated a total of two seconds of observations from a half dozen frustrating glimpses. During those early years I even got the camera ready, just in case a bird might show itself to its rival on the tape recorder. By today’s standards that hardly even qualifies as a photo attempt.

In 1998 Suzanne Fellows, Mary Butel and I had one between us at Coldwater City Lake, the only other area in Kansas with a known population of Black Rails. We all pointed to the sound coming from the cattails no more than six feet from any of us. Eventually I saw the black blur and they both missed it. I didn’t have time to even move the camera. About four years ago I decided that I would get publishable photos and all I had to do was put in enough time and find (1) the right combination of camera, lens and flash, at the right settings, to photograph a sparrow-sized black bird at night; (2) the right combination of area lights so I could see the bird in the darkness; (3) the right spot for the bird to be so I could find him in the thick vegetation; (4) a method of getting the bird to go to that right spot; and (5) sufficient hormone levels (the bird’s, not mine). For several years I experimented with different set-ups and I amused the rails as they laughed kee-kee-der. I tried mornings, I tried evenings, I tried nights, they laughed kee-kee-der.

May 5, 2007.  I tried again at Coldwater City Lake. Not one rail could be coaxed into a response, even though I had heard them the week before at Quivira. By 8:30 that night a nasty northbound storm was bearing down on the lake, lightning was popping, and I decided to retreat to a motel in town. Around 9:00 p.m. the whole town lost electricity and the storm passed directly overhead. By 9:30 I was taking lightning pictures, from the motel parking lot, of a fantastic light show just north of Coldwater and bearing down on Greensburg. I’d never seen a storm like that one. Tornado sirens sounded and every emergency vehicle in town headed north out of Coldwater. By 11:30, and still with no electricity, I went to bed. The next morning I drove north and discovered what had happened the night before when the tornado leveled Greensburg.

I tried a few more times at Quivira in 2007, rails laughed kee-kee-der and I found it more rewarding to go photograph shorebirds. I read and reread William Burt’s accounts in Rare and Elusive Birds of North America. He photographed one, why couldn’t I? David Seibel was also experimenting with photographing this bird and was also failing to get photos, although he had managed to see the birds more by daylight (before he had a good camera, naturally) than I had. We realized that we had inadvertently entered an informal race for the first good Black Rail photos in Kansas. A little friendly competition is a healthy thing, but we also recognized that the real contest was between the rails and both of us, so we compared notes and plotted, planned and studied for 2008. I had new ideas and plans, David had his own strategies, and we combined our schemes. We agreed to work together whenever possible, but the race was still on.

May 2, 2008.  The Quivira wind howled and it was cold! David and I had a Black Rail respond to a recording mid-afternoon, and I saw two birds briefly flutter together about a foot high before diving back into the sedges. That was a major sighting! That evening, standing in the wind and the dark, with rain mist in the air, we had none respond to the tape. We were freezing and wet, and we quit by 11:30 p.m. Next time we’ll get him!

May 3, 2008.  It was perfectly calm with no moon, and a Black Rail called as we got out of the truck around 10:30 p.m. He was close to the road. We set about preparing our equipment. We had cameras with big lenses on tripods, flashes on top of long flash brackets, and flashlights with red cellophane taped to our lenses to assist focusing. We had lights diffused with red cellophane for watching and red miner’s lights on our foreheads for reading camera settings. We moved closer and placed the remote speaker about fifteen feet out under a mat of dried sedges. We stood ankle deep in the marsh water and played a Black Rail call, and immediately a rail called back aggressively. It sounded like it was under thick sedges about eight feet from the speaker. Over the next hour we played the rail call, call off, call on, call off; we waited quietly in the dark, rail came in, rail calls got farther away, rail came in, rail retreated, rail came closer; we looked and looked and never saw the bird. Not enough hormones in the bird? We packed up and heard the rail flutter off into the night. We could hear no other Black Rails in the marsh. We went to bed about 12:30 a.m. Next time we’ll get him!

Bits & Butts of the Black RailMay 8, 2008.  David couldn’t join me, but I planned to try for rails at Quivira after an evening presentation to the Great Bend Camera Club. Rain and lightning forced me on home. I was cruising in the dark at sixty mph when a lighting strike in the fence line exploded with a fireball the size of my pickup. It was no more than fifty feet away and I immediately put my hand to the side of my face. It was sooooo hot! My ears were ringing; I blinked back and forth from eye to eye until my eyes readjusted after the flash. I didn’t even make it to the rail field, but it was memorable. (Note from Seibel: This is what you get for trying to beat me!)

May 17, 2008.  David and I met again at Quivira. We put on rubber boots and headed into the sedges at 9:30 p.m. Under a full moon, we sloshed through the boot-sucking mud towards a rail calling in the distance. It sounded like he was close. Perhaps 400 yards later we finally got to the bird. We set up and turned on the calls, and eventually a bird came to the speaker! We should have been more careful preparing the platform. We each got two photos of the bird behind distracting sedges. Another bird called farther out. We sloshed on, did a better job preparing the platform with a mat of dried sedges and started the rail calls. About ten minutes later we saw movement and turned on the focusing lights, and the bird tore across the platform to vanish permanently into the sedges behind it. We each got a single butt shot! All told, we heard at least eight birds calling at different times that night. Perhaps their hormones were taking over, but they still weren’t aggressive or curious enough to allow a good shot. As Seibel put it, we had curious, we needed furious. We got out of the marsh at 3:00 a.m., and after six hours of mosquito-buzzing/ biting/ swatting, standing in stinky swamp water with eyes straining in the darkness… we each had three bad Black Rail images. We averaged one bad photo for every two hours of work. We were thrilled; it was the most successful Black Rail photography night we’d ever had! We collapsed on sleeping bags at 3:30 a.m. and were back up photographing shorebirds with early light at 7:00 a.m. We were so close to getting the shot. Next time we’ll get him for sure!

Part 2: Success At Last!

May 30, 2008.  David and I met on the Wildlife Drive around 6:00 p.m. We felt lucky! We planned to photograph birds while we had good light and then meet over at the rail field. Shorebird migration was definitely winding down. Not nearly the numbers we’d seen earlier in the month, but still plenty of subjects to photograph. While the bird numbers had dropped, the mosquito numbers had certainly increased! We met at dusk, and as I stepped out of my truck I immediately felt mosquitoes on my bare legs. I brushed both legs and killed at least a dozen in the first ten seconds. Was this an omen? I quickly put on some jeans and slathered up with DEET. It would be a very dark, calm night. Just a sliver of a moon would be out much later. We heard a Black Rail in the distance, but he was a long way out in the marsh. We were getting better at preparing our equipment, but it still took nearly a half hour to get everything ready. I also harvested a six-inch bundle of fresh cut sedges that we would use to hide the speaker. We were full of optimism and eager to get started, but no rails were calling. We strained to hear through the constant drone of mosquitoes. Then the rail on the far side of the sedge meadow called again. Darn, we were hoping for one close to the road.

We sloshed into the sedges, which had grown significantly since we were here two weeks ago. It is hard to describe the feeling of trudging through this sedge meadow at night without using a flashlight. In the darkness it is impossible to see where you are stepping or what lies ahead. The growing plants were only about two feet tall, but they were emerging through dried waves of sedges accumulated from last year’s growing season. If the mat was flat on the ground, walking was easy, but this was rarely the case. Much of the time the mat was suspended in this year’s growing crop about a foot above the ground. Every step plunged back through this mat of vegetation, into about three inches of water and then into the mud. With every step we stirred up a new cloud of mosquitoes that joined our hovering halo held at bay by the magic of DEET. It was very dark, and it was fun to see the many stars always hidden in our urban skies, although we figured the stars tonight were outnumbered by the mosquitoes.

By the time we made it across the meadow the rail had quit calling. We stood in the darkness listening. We tried playing our rail calls, but no bird responded. Why were they so quiet tonight? Where were they? Finally a different bird called. It sounded to be several hundred yards to the east. Off we sloshed. When we got close it quit calling, and it also ignored our calls. After a couple of hours of this our optimism was dwindling. Another bird called back by the road, not far from where we had started. Off we sloshed. When it also went silent we made our way back to the road, almost ready to concede another night to the rails. At least we could walk again in relative comfort.

Then another rail called, and it was close! He was calling from the ditch no more than ten feet from the edge of the road. We set the speaker under our portable mat of sedges and played a call. He called back. That was good. Then he got quiet. That was better. He was approaching. We saw movement at the edge of the sedges. Shutters and flashes popped. He crossed the mat searching for his new neighbor. More shutters and flashes. He doubled back across the mat and was gone. According to the time recorded on the photos his visit lasted about 9 seconds. We could not convince him to make another appearance, although he remained nearby and kept calling incessantly.

It was now nearly midnight. Across the marsh we could hear a couple more rails. Off we went. They got quiet. Back we came. We were getting tired and must have been walking with our mouths open. I heard David coughing and sputtering behind me, and then I also inhaled a mosquito and managed to get it back out. We inhaled and spit our way across the marsh, stopping long enough to discuss the calories in the half dozen we had ingested. By the end of the night, we had mosquitoes in places we didn’t know they could go. David discovered one smashed between his left eye and his glasses, and at least one that he inhaled went into his nostril, not his mouth. Neither of us was complaining; we were both happy to have gotten a decent shot of a Black Rail, though there was still certainly room for improvement.

Our roadside friend was still calling when we returned at 2:30 a.m. Would he respond again if we set up on the marsh side of the ditch? Maybe he would think it was a different neighbor. We set up. He talked to our recording. Then quiet. Great, he was moving. Like a mouse he suddenly emerged onto the mat. Cameras and flashes popped. He disappeared back into the darkness and the protection of the sedges. We shut off the calls. We would let him think he had chased away his new neighbor. After ten minutes we tried again and he made an encore appearance. This time he stopped and stood frozen for a full twenty seconds, staring in the direction of the speaker. I’d never seen a Black Rail that wasn’t moving! Cameras flashed and flashed and flashed. He turned, came toward us, and then disappeared into the darkness. We spent nearly seven hours in the marsh and had managed almost forty seconds of viewing/ photography time. Standing in the darkness, high-fives seemed appropriate. We packed up and welcomed sleep at 4:00 a.m.

For years, a major goal for both of us was to get good photographs of a Black Rail. Now that we have the photos we realize that as with any adventure, the real reward and the real memories lie with the journey.

Faces of the Black Rail

Faces of the Black Rail

Addendum from David Seibel

One of my favorite sounds is Bob’s crooning “Ooooh, baby!” when he looks at the preview of a winning shot. There were a few of those that night, right there in the sedge meadow, and I remember thinking as I tripped my shutter for the last time, “THAT’S the shot I wanted!” We had both won the “race,” and better yet, we had tied. Bob had to leave early the next morning, but I stayed to see what else I could find to photograph. After an uneventful pass of the Wildlife Drive, I stopped by the rail meadow once more around 10:30 a.m. A Black Rail was calling beside the road in the same spot as the night before – probably our one cooperative bird, which I’m guessing might be an unmated male. I had recorded some of his calls the previous night and decided to see what effect they might have on him in daylight. No elaborate preparations, no slogging for miles in the dark through the sedge-infested mosquito swarm; just setting the speaker on the side of the road and playing a few calls. Suffice it to say that I broke in my new camera (which I’d prudently chosen not to try for the night shots) on a very cooperative Black Rail. Alas, the challenge and mystery of the images might somehow seem diminished by a gravel road or my car as the background, but I captured them anyway. This, of course, enticed me to stay and try for one more series of “easy” night shots, for which I was rewarded with about a million mosquito bites and much more typical behavior (lots of calling and not a single appearance) by the Black Rail. Had he found a mate? Had he realized the hoax of those ultra-sexy calls? Had he become habituated to the idea of a new neighbor? Who knows, but in a way I’m glad… the challenge and mystery survive!

Black Rail crossing road

“Why does the Black Rail cross the road?” In this case, we really don’t know why or even how often it happens, but don’t expect to see any “Black Rail Crossing” signs anytime soon. This bird apparently stayed on the south side of the road all day after it made its bold daylight dash from the north, and it did not seem to know quite what to make of Seibel’s car. Composite (original size, 10800 x 2734 pixels) of seven images taken May 31, 2008, 11:07:24 – 11:07:33 a.m.; an eighth (not included) shows the bird underneath the vehicle.


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Bob Gress is a naturalist, photographer, and birder. He holds an M.S. in environmental biology from Emporia State University. He is the former director of the Great Plains Nature Center (GPNC) in Wichita, KS and is editor for the popular pocket guide series published by the GPNC. He has photographed birds and mammals for publications for over 30 years. Over 4,000 of his photos have appeared in a wide variety of publications including most major nature magazines and more than 50 books.