The salt marshes of the Atlantic coast are home to a variety of bird species that specialize on this harsh but productive habitat. One such denizen of the marshes is the clapper rail (Rallus longirostris). This bird is related to the cranes, but is the size of a small chicken. It spends its entire life squeezing through the densely packed vegetation in the marsh, poking around in its hunt for crabs and other mud-loving morsels. Its body is flattened side-to-side (thin as a rail) to assist this movement.
The rail’s song is a chugging, choking, coughing splutter. The Cornell bird site has a recording, but it doesn’t capture the attack and volume of the song. I took a group of students out in canoes yesterday to search for the rails and was impressed to hear the songs echo down the tidal creeks that we were traveling. The low walls of salt marsh vegetation along these creek act like the walls of a canyon and the songs ricochet as they shoot along.
Clapper rails normally keep themselves hidden, but this evening I saw one preening and singing on an exposed mud bank. The photo below show the bird’s impressive beak, a tool used to catch and dismember crabs.
Clapper rails live along the coasts on both sides of North and South America, wherever salt marshes grow. These birds can be quite common in good habitat, but because salt marshes have decreased in extent over the last hundred years, they are not nearly as abundant as they used to be. Despite the best efforts of the legislature in North Carolina (who just passed a law more or less forbidding the sea to rise or, more precisely, asking scientists to stick their heads ostrich-like deep into the eroding sands), the ongoing and accelerating upward creep of the ocean will gnaw away at the rails’ home (and ours — see NASAs interesting animation on this topic).