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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Clapper rail

We decided to shoot down the Sacramento valley this week and stop at Point Reyes National Seashore to gather the three camera traps. My permit to camera trap there expires in January, and the redhead, who happens to be the spirit of Christmas in this family, suggested we do it now before things get too hectic.

Before heading down into the gulch, I vowed to pull the cams without pausing to view the pics.

Normally the redhead watches me with binoculars from the road, and radios the whereabouts of elk. This has attracted park visitors who ask, "Any good birds today?" or "Have you seen any elk?" Usually she signals me as they approach, and I duck out of sight like a commando.

There was only one lone bull elk in the area, and when it disappeared into the next gulch, she informed me she was retiring to the car to read.

Finding the first camera was a workout. The GPS told me I was on top of it, but it took me 15 minutes to find it 6 feet away on the other side of the thicket. It took more time to pussy-foot my way to the other camera sets, because the rains have turned the bottom of the gulch into a quagmire, and the elk have churned it up like water buffalo in a rice padi. It took a full hour and a half to collect the cams and posts.

After dinner I downloaded the pictures, and the big surprise was the clapper rail. This is actually the California clapper rail, an endangered subspecies from the San Franciso bay area.

The bird visited this muddy drainage site a week ago at 4:10 in the afternoon. This was a new camera trap set I made during my last visit over 6 weeks ago, and it was also my final desperate attempt to get more pictures of mountain beavers. (The wiley rodents seemed to have disappeared from their haunts where I photographed them back in July. More about them in a few days.)

The location is a waterlogged thicket at the base of a steep hill. I don't think this is the kind of place a birder would look for rails. Nearby in Abbott's lagoon and the backwaters of Drake's Estero there is more typical marshy habitat, but there is plenty of cover here, and the soil is deep and wet.

The only other avian visitor was a hermit thrush.

Rails feed mainly on invertebrates they probe from the mud, but small vertebrates like this shrew are said to be fair game. (See the velvety gray hair and bicolored tail -- it's another Sorex trowbridgeii.)

These were lucky pictures, because the camera is set for night time shots. Dim overcast lighting and shade had fooled the camera into thinking it was night. In five months of camera trapping this gulch, this is the only rail captured by the cameras. I am pleased.


Anonymous said...

As a teenager i would hitch hike from South Orange to Tom's River, New Jersey, and birdwatch in the coastal brackish swamps. That's the habitat i think of when i hear Clapper Rails. Your photos look like damp woodlands; how far from coastal swamp?

Camera Trap Codger said...

The coastal marsh is only a half mile away.

I should add that I am not absolutely 110% positive that this is a clapper, but the legs are the right color (Virginia rail's have more orange-colored legs, and the cheek is more clapper colored -- according to Sibley's guide).

(Fortunately few birders read this blog.)

Anonymous said...

The rail photographed is a Virginia rail. Note the gray cheeks, rich plumage colors, and proportions (short neck, etc.). The odds of a clapper occurring in that habitat are close to zero.

Nice photos though.