The sun sets over a secret spot in a South Carolina marsh, casting amber light on the grass. At this twilight angle, the sunbeams add extra green to the blades, which are as high as your shoulders. The grass sways in a breeze gentle enough for dragonflies to land. They bounce on the tips, their wings glint in the softening sun, and, for a moment, your path looks as if it’s filled with tiny mirrors.
A little black bird may be here, underneath these bouncing dragonflies, somewhere in these sparkling green waves. A rare bird called the eastern black rail. A bird so difficult to see that John James Audubon never saw one in the wild. A bird so stealthy that even the most ardent birders haven’t seen one, though they may have heard their calls. So rare that Christy Hand, a biologist, asks — no, pleads — that you not reveal where you are because she knows mysteries are irresistible.
A black rail? Here? If word gets out the birding websites will light up. The birders will head to this quiet and beautiful place. They could harm the birds she loves and studies so closely. They could trample the nests, even though it’s breeding season. They would come because it’s rare, because they could check it off their lists, because so few black rails are left they may never get another chance. And what’s to stop them?
Black rails could disappear altogether in a generation or two, but South Carolina laws don't specifically protect them. There are fewer eastern black rails than some endangered species, but the federal Endangered Species Act doesn't cover them.
So, as she walks deeper into the marsh, looking for this ghost bird, she’s torn.
Yes, she wants everyone to know the black rail’s story, a story that’s much bigger than one about a little bird with bright red eyes.
But no, maybe it’s better not to talk. Maybe it's best to keep these mysteries secret.
Right, it's easier to keep studying these phantoms in a stealthy way, like the black rail itself. Besides, Hand is more comfortable in the field than in the spotlight. She’s a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, in her late-30s. She has a monk's stamina when standing motionless in a marsh as mosquitoes swirl about. She has a diviner’s touch when placing motion-sensing cameras in the grassy tunnels where black rails nest. Few people have seen an eastern black rail, and fewer still have photographed them. But during the past five years, Hand and her colleagues at DNR captured more than 30,000 photos and videos of black rails.
OK, it’s not the most photogenic bird. It doesn’t have the swiveling head of an owl or the brilliant red plumage of a cardinal. It’s a reluctant flyer, this bird. It spends much of its time running through spaces between the stalks. Because of this, scientists have called it a “feathered mouse.” It’s slightly bigger than a mouse, though, about 4 to 6 inches long. At 1.2 ounces, it’s lighter than a golf ball. But take a closer look and its features grow on you.
Its pinprick red eyes are set above an obsidian-colored beak shaped like a shark tooth. It has black and gray feathers with hints of brown near the neck, like the color of mud and decaying marsh grass. It has speckled white spots on its wings, like the dappled light on Spartina roots. It’s designed to blend in, to be there without you knowing it.
Which is why most birders never set eyes on them. Instead, they hunt for their calls, which in birding circles counts as a sighting. If you’re lucky, you might be a few feet away when you hear a soft grr, a growl that may be a defensive call. Or its sharp churt. Or the more dramatic kickee-doo!
Early in her research, Hand spent nearly a year hiking into marshes, surveying, listening, looking, waiting. The best times to hear black rails are in late evening and dawn. So that’s when she did her surveys, day after day, hour after hour. She didn’t hear a peep. There in the marsh, rational and irrational thoughts hung like mist in in her mind. Why didn’t she hear them? Did she have a hearing problem? Was she in the wrong place? Did they still exist in South Carolina? Were they real?
She’d long been fascinated by birds and other animals. She grew up in Indiana, in a neighborhood by a pond. She loved watching the birds come and go. She liked frogs, too, and guided them to hidden places because neighborhood boys tried to stuff firecrackers in their mouths. Her grandparents gave her a Reader’s Digest book about birds, and soon she was trying to identify the birds around the pond. One day, like a tourist in a loud T-shirt, a bufflehead duck appeared, a rare visitor for the pond, its head the phosphorescent colors of a peacock feather. She formed an animal club in school, earned a biology degree from Earlham College in Indiana, a master’s from Clemson, did research in Alaska and eventually landed a job at SCDNR.
Then, in 2013, one of her mentors at DNR walked into her office and asked what she knew about black rails.
“What’s a black rail?” she answered.
Not long after that, a supervisor said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to know more about the presence of black rails in South Carolina. Would she help? At the time, a conservation group had organized a black rail conference in Savannah. It was a perfect chance to get up to speed.
The meeting would change her life.
She didn’t know much about black rails, but the scientific community didn’t either. Where and when did black rails breed? What were their migration patterns? No one knew for sure — the bird was just that secretive. But researchers did know black rails were in trouble.
They live on spongy land, wetlands with enough water to keep forests from taking over but not so much that their nests flood. This means they live on the thinnest of edges, edges growing thinner by the year.
Wetlands have long been under assault by human development, drained and dredged, farmed and ditched. More than half of our wetlands have disappeared since Europeans settled here. Now, rising sea levels are squeezing what’s left, and squeezing out black rails.
Eastern black rails once were found from New England to Florida. Now, they’re all but gone. Virginia and Maryland were strongholds.
"We haven't heard one in Virginia since 2017, and Maryland's in the same situation," said Bryan Watts, director of The Center of Conservation Biology.
In the mid-1970s, you might hear 70 in one spot in North Carolina's Outer Banks, he said. A recent survey found four.
Conservationists tried to sound the alarms. In 2010, environmental groups asked the federal government to protect black rails under the Endangered Species Act. After a court fight, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to study the black rail’s vulnerability. The workshop in Savannah in 2013 was part of this new research push.
Researchers at the Savannah meeting estimated that between 1,000 and 2,200 birds were left. A few years later, they cut that number in half. Was the black rail another climate change casualty?
During that meeting, something inside Hand’s mind began to shift. This little bird was an “indicator” species. Its struggles reflected larger threats to our wetlands. She suddenly wanted to learn even more about that bird, especially since South Carolina had an unusual feature: impoundments built by enslaved people hundreds of years ago, wetlands that might be the bird’s last hope here.
Maybe, she thought, if she understood some of the bird's secrets, where they nested, how they bred and moved about, maybe this information could help us save them.
Yes, the more information out there, the better. Hadn't secrecy harmed black rails? Made them targets? In 1836, a naturalist in Philadelphia discovered a black rail on his farm, the first sighting in America. He sent a specimen to Audubon, the ornithologist and painter. Audubon painted an adult and chick running toward a puddle. He bragged that the dead specimen “will swell my catalog to the number of 475.”
Audubon never saw one in the wild, and the black rail’s reputation for elusiveness only grew. Sightings generated excitement among bird collectors across the country, including Arthur T. Wayne, one of South Carolina’s early and most revered birders.
Wayne lived in Charleston in the late-1800s and early 1900s. Part scientist, part entrepreneur, he made a living as an ornithologist who supplied bird skins to museums and private collectors. He added 45 new species to the state’s list and wrote 125 scientific papers, naturalist David Chamberlain wrote in The Chat, a publication by the Carolina Bird Club.
On the business side, rare birds brought in more money, so Wayne hunted for the colorful Carolina Parakeet, which would soon be extinct. Ivory Billed Woodpeckers were worth $20 apiece, about $520 in today's dollars. They were worth much more than Bachman’s Warblers, also teetering on the edge and only worth $2.50, or about $70 today. In 1903, a boy brought Wayne an unusual egg from a nearby oat field.
“I hastened with gun and collecting basket,” he later wrote.
He found the rail on a nest with eight eggs.
Accentuating his find with italics, he wrote: “It can be readily imagined with what pleasure I saw the parent incubating the eggs, as I was the first person who had ever seen this secretive bird actually on her nest!”
The bird raced into the cover of the oats — so fast that it reminded him of a scurrying field mouse. He heard a kickee-doo and flushed it. Then he shot it, stuffed it and gave it to a collector.
Since then, the black rail’s mystique has only grown. In 2010, a birder spotted a black rail in a wildlife refuge in Massachusetts. He posted his discovery on eBird, a website that has become the world’s most popular bird sighting platform. Within a day, 34 birders flocked to the spot. Two days later, 50 people showed up; four days later, another 30, all straining to hear that kickee-doo. Black rails haven't been seen in Massachusetts since then.
Lewis Burke, president of the Carolina Bird Club, said his closest friend and mentor Dan Hudson spotted 700 bird species in the United States but never saw a black rail. Burke was luckier and heard one in a South Carolina wildlife refuge. He saw the marsh grass move but never saw the rail.
"I nearly had a heart attack because I knew what it was." Peter Kleinhenz, a Florida birder, calls a black rail sighting akin to a climber summiting Mount Everest.
In 2014, as Christy Hand did more research in the marsh, she wondered if she would ever hear that call. She thought about the black rails' small place in the world, the long odds of their survival. Then, one morning before dawn in late June 2014, she and two colleagues went into the field again. It was humid, with a light breeze. The mosquitoes buzzed as the sun colored the sky orange. One of her colleagues played a few recorded calls, the grr and the kickee-doo.
And it happened. Kickee-doo!
Then another one in a different spot. Kickee-doo!
And she sat there, still, to hold the moment, listening to the birds but thoughts pouring through her mind: Yes, her ears were fine. Yes, the birds were here.
Later that morning, she noticed that her face ached from smiling so much.
Yes, she should talk about the black rail. More people need to know about the wonder of birds. If they learn about them, they’ll love them, and we protect what we love, right?
Many of us already love birding. It’s among the country’s most popular hobbies. One federal study in 2016 counted 45 million birdwatchers, one in five Americans. Half a million South Carolinians count birding as a hobby. American birders spend a staggering $41 billion on trips, food and equipment every year. Their spending generates 666,000 jobs. In spending dollars, birding is bigger than hunting and comparable to recreational fishing.
The birding boom only grew during the coronavirus pandemic. With quiet streets, people suddenly could hear birdsongs they hadn't noticed before. Submissions to eBird shot up 46 percent in early April, when many states had shutdowns. On May 9, birdwatchers reported a record 2.1 million sightings on eBird for “Global Big Day,” an annual bird-spotting event.
Ebird has been a big part of the birding boom. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon Society created eBird in 2002. It’s a free platform that allows birders to crowdsource their observations. It takes in millions of sightings a year from across the world. It dangles incentives to stay involved; birders publish “life lists” of birds they’ve seen; top birders are ranked for all to see. It’s fantasy football with beaks and wings.
This documentation happens in real time. So if someone spots a painted bunting on a dock at James Island County Park, you know exactly where to go.
Ebird can be addictive, avid birders say. Ted Floyd, editor of the American Birding Association’s magazine, wrote in 2011 that eBird changed his life.
“I keep at it, quite simply and quite profoundly, because eBird keeps me going, because eBird sustains me.”
A recent look at eBird showed that people observed black rails 5,713 times, a comparatively small number. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker had more than 19,600 observations, while common species, such as the Great Blue Heron, had 5.4 million and counting.
But even before eBird, a subset of birders took extraordinary lengths to check birds off their lists. These competitive listers fly to remote parts of Alaska to see rare species. They charter helicopters to spot birds in rugged mountains. All of this is done on the honor system, though some people cheat. They’re called “stringers” because they string others along with sightings no one else confirms, said Nate Dias, an avid birder in Charleston who sits near the top of South Carolina’s eBird lists.
The Olympic marathon of listing is a “Big Year” — counting the number of species in North America in a single year. It’s a loose competition. A man named Olaf Danielson did a Big Year naked, birding mainly in nudist colonies and later writing a book: “Boobies, Peckers and Tits.” The 1998 Big Year was notable. Three birders traveled more than 275,000 miles to build their lists, a race chronicled by Mark Obmascik in his book “The Big Year” and later turned into a movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Sandy Komito, the winner that year, identified 745 species.
In one scene in the book, Obmascik described Komito’s hunt for yellow rails in the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Yellow rails are just as secretive as black rails but more numerous.
“The only way to see yellow rails was to force them to take wing,” Obmascik wrote.
Federal officials once obliged birders by driving through marshes in vehicles with tires you might see on monster trucks. This flushed the rails. Wildlife officers eventually stopped these destructive truck trips. In their place, Obmascik wrote, the birders still had their “secret weapon: terror.”
Komito and van loads of birders converged on the refuge. They had long ropes and plastic milk cartons filled with gravel. Attaching the cartons to the ropes, the birders formed a line and dragged the ropes and cartons through the marsh. The commotion frightened a yellow rail into flying. The birders checked it off their lists.
No, maybe Hand will keep quiet about black rails. Her work could stoke more curiosity about them and where they might be, trigger a rail rush. Then again, other people will gladly talk about them.
Like Dennis Forsythe, emeritus biology professor at The Citadel. He's perched atop eBird's South Carolina list with 405 species. Years ago, Forsythe saw a black rail in eastern North Carolina. He was a partner in a bird tour company that took a group to a location on the Outer Banks. They heard a call, formed a circle and flushed one. He couldn't believe his luck. It was there and gone so fast that someone in the group wanted another look — not realizing the rarity of a sighting.
"I was stunned just to see one at all," said Forsythe, who has since switched from birds to butterflies.
And there’s Nate Dias, the Charleston ornithologist and conservationist. He's stopped listing on eBird, and he's happier for it.
“We’ve lost access to two or three places in the last few years around here because people put it on eBird. Because if you submit a rare bird on eBird, often within a couple of days there will be dozens of birders doing things like playing recordings or trampling habitat or trying to flush the bird. There’s just some really ugly behavior that results from these treasure hunts.”
Dias won’t say exactly where, but he’s seen black rails in the Santee Delta and ACE Basin — places where enslaved people once built hundreds of miles of dikes to grow rice. Many of these old rice-growing impoundments still exist, often as duck-hunting preserves. The dikes allow property managers to control water levels, in some cases creating that thin film of standing water that black rails love.
Says Dias: "I fear that in 10 years these rice field impoundments may be the only places you find black rails in South Carolina."
And there’s Drew Lanham.
Like Hand, Lanham loved birds as a child, their colors, their freedom to get above everything. Sometimes in Edgefield, where he grew up, he lay face-up on a dirt lane to watch buzzards trace circles in the sky.
“I often wished we could trade places, that I could sail as effortlessly on the wind as they did,” he wrote in his memoir “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.”
Motionless, he waited until the buzzards were so close he could almost count the feathers on their wings. He went to Clemson on an engineering scholarship, then switched majors to follow his love for nature. He eventually became a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson and a rarity himself, a Black birder.
“Any bird that’s black is my bird,” he says on a YouTube video.
He was in his early 20s when he had his first encounter with black rails. It was on a trip to Fairlawn Plantation, a tract in the Francis Marion National Forest near Awendaw. Fairlawn has a long history of rare bird sightings, including the Bachman’s Warbler, which hasn’t been seen anywhere since 1988 and may be extinct. He was with one of his mentors one night, and they had just left the property's old wooden cabins. They went into the marsh “and we heard this kickee-doo, kickee-doo, and they got louder and louder until it sounded almost like a chorus of frogs.”
Back then, in the 1980s, the bird was known to be elusive but not on the edge of extinction, he said. But sometime in the 1990s black rails reached a tipping point. Populations in Maryland and Virginia collapsed.
These areas also saw some of the nation's highest rates of sea level rise. Part of this was driven by climate change, but land here also is sinking, a process known as subsidence. Some of this subsidence happens because of the natural movement of the earth’s plates. Groundwater extraction is another contributer, and it's a serious problem in coastal areas of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. Removing groundwater causes soils to compress — for the sponge to flatten. Seas rush in.
But the old rice impoundments in South Carolina? They're safe havens, Lanham said. And haunting ones.
Now, when he visits the remnants of these rice fields, he finds his mind moving back and forth, from past to present, to the ghosts of enslaved people to the black rails — ghosted out of so many other places by rising tides, but running and flying free behind dikes once used to make planters rich.
Impoundments — are we giving too much away? Even federal officials won’t talk about where black rails live.
In late-2018, the Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposal to list the eastern black rail as a “threatened” species, one step below “endangered.” It did so despite its own finding that without urgent action, the black rail will be extinct in 35 years. The agency had one year to OK the plan or put it aside.
Typically, proposals identify specific places where a teetering species might live. Not so for black rails. The agency noted the eastern black rail’s “grail-like status in the birding community.” It warned how birders learn about a black rail sightings on eBird and converge. Carrying smartphones loaded with black rail recordings, they could broadcast calls in the marsh, disturbing the birds, causing them to flee their nests. They could trample nests, making rails more vulnerable to predators. You can find nuclear missile silos on Google Maps, but finding black rail habitat may be more difficult.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal was the culmination of years of research, including Hand's many discoveries in South Carolina.
When she began in 2013, her first priorities were to learn where they nested and how many were left. Documented sightings were scarce, but she had a head start: a research project by a Clemson graduate student. That project identified 17 places in South Carolina where observers heard black rails; they never saw any.
Building on that work, Hand and colleagues at DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service did another survey over the next two years.
“I’d hoped that we’d find black rails sprinkled all over the place. But we didn’t,” she said.
Most were still in or near those old rice fields.
Her next goal was to learn more about their behavior and breeding. She thought about attaching transmitters. But the birds were too small, and the dense marsh grass made it tough to pick up signals. She managed to trap and band a few birds, but that was risky, and she worried about harming them. Once, she caught a black rail with a net. Holding it, she noticed its eyes close, as if giving up — a sign of stress. She immediately let it go.
She decided on a new and less invasive plan: station cameras in the marsh. In an ocean of grass, she developed a knack for finding spots where the rails moved about. These cameras captured just a foot or two of space in this green and brown sea. But over time, she compiled the world’s most comprehensive image and audio database on eastern black rails.
As she added to her database, she watched them grow. At first, newly hatched chicks had short and wobbly legs; chicks stumbled and used their wings for balance; after two weeks, their feathers emerged; by 28 days, their bills were black; by day 42, their feathers were good enough for flying.
With these images, she learned how they courted: males often offered females food, preened or simply chased after their mates. After coupling, a male tumbled from the female and circled with a lowered head and raised wings. The female bowed and ruffled her feathers.
These videos also captured the sweet chirps of baby rails, rolling, high-frequency peeps amid their parents' kickee-doos! Smiling, Hand watched chicks follow their parents through the grass stalks.
And these birds were sneaky.
Sometimes one approached her with a growl. Then, a few moments later, a bird growled from behind her. For all she knew, it might have run between her legs. Or maybe it was a second bird. Time and again, she’d return from the field and study the images from her camera traps. Time and again, she realized the birds had been a footstep or two away from her.
She still had so many questions: Did they migrate or stay in South Carolina? If they left, where did they go? Florida?
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is how much I still don’t know about them.”
And there are other questions, including ones that fly beyond her field cameras and data: How do we protect something we love? Hold it close so it's all but hidden? Or share it so others love and protect it, too?
Yes, Hand will talk about the bird. Science isn’t something you hold back. And we could learn a lot from this bird and its plight. The stakes go beyond black rails. Since 1970, North America has lost nearly three billion birds — one in four, researchers reported last year in Science magazine. The National Audubon Society calculated that if human beings don’t stop burning fossil fuels and find other ways to slow climate change, two thirds of North America’s birds will be extinct in 80 years. The climate will change so fast that many birds won’t be able to adapt in time, especially little black birds that nest on a narrow edge of habitat.
So during her next research trip into the field, she’ll take you to that edge — and perhaps the rails.
It’s summer, and nearly two years have passed since the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the species as threatened. The federal agency had blown its deadline, and in March, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit demanding they follow their own rules. A trial is scheduled for November, two days after Election Day. In the lawsuit, the group noted that black rails aren't the only species waiting for protection; the suit alleges the agency had a backlog of more than 500 other decisions.
And there were other headwinds: In August, the Trump administration said it would change the way it enforces the Endangered Species Act. Among the changes: New language would make it easier to ignore threats from the accelerating forces of climate change, such as rising sea levels.
But far from these legal swamps, Hand walks into the marsh this summer evening with a parabolic dish. It's about the size of a small umbrella. If she hears a call, she’ll point the dish toward the noise to get better audio. We probably won't hear anything, she says. Then again, the bird songs were loud a few weeks ago on a perfect night when the sun was setting and the marsh was ablaze with life. But they seemed to be quieting since then.
Dragonflies buzz, and a light breeze sends ripples of shadows across the grass. Spiders make silk between a few blades, and that honey light casts everything in deeper shades. Hand puts on her headphones. She plays a soft kickee-doo. She doesn’t want to play too many recordings, doesn’t want to confuse the rails, add stress to the birds’ lives. If they're here.
And then ...
Over there, about 15 feet away in the grass. Kickee-doo!
And behind you. Kickee-doo!
And, over there, toward the sun. Kickee-doo!
They’re here, several adult black rails, though still unseen, like ghosts.
And then, through her headphones, she hears something else, and the world vanishes: the pandemic, the uncertainty stoked by a rapidly warming planet.
And in its place is only the quiet day-end exhalation of the marsh — and the bubbling and hopeful sounds of at least two newly hatched black rail chicks. •
Acknowledgements and about this story
At the advice of black rail researchers, we published this story at the end of the black rail’s breeding season when they're much less vulnerable to human interference. Christy Hand was kind enough to organize excursions into South Carolina marshes, even during the pandemic. Bryan Watts, director of The Center for Conservation Biology, has been working on eastern black rail issues since the late-1980s and helped provide important context. Members of the Carolina Bird Club also contributed their experiences, including Lewis Burke and Craig Watson. The group has passed a resolution supporting the federal listing of the black rail as a threatened species. In addition to those quoted in the story, thanks also to Erin Weeks at Jamie Dozier at DNR and Stephanie Kurose of the Center for Biological Diversity. Ernie Wiggers and Beau Bauer at Nemours Wildlife Foundation also described their work to protect land for black rails.
Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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