Hide and Seek

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2007

Last revision: Nov. 30, 2010

Wildlife photographers don’t have normal working hours. Hoping to capture the mating behavior of king rails, I rose at 1 a.m. one day last June and drove from Jefferson City to a wetland area north of St. Louis.

Accompanied by the sounds of countless bullfrogs seemingly trying to harmonize, I waded through water and thick vegetation to a place where I’d spotted king rails just a few days earlier. With two cameras—one wide-angle and one supertelephoto—and an electronic caller set up beside me, I watched the sun rise.

I hoped the king rails would still be there.

King Rails live in wetlands from the Gulf Coast to North Dakota. Most birds winter on the coast, but a few migrate to Missouri sometime in late winter or early spring and stay until fall.

King rails are abundant enough to be considered game animals in several southeastern states, but they are not easy to find—much less photograph—in Missouri. Though they used to be common in the marshes along our large rivers, only a handful of these birds now visit our state each year. King rails are classified as endangered in Missouri.

Not only are they rare, but they are hard to see. With their rusty-colored body plummage, striped flanks and thin silhouette, they blend perfectly with wetland vegetation. They are also naturally elusive, usually spending most of the day hidden in dense grass. Researchers have to walk shoulder to shoulder to get them to flush.

Fortunately, king rails readily respond to calls. A king rail’s repertoire of calls includes a series of loud “keks,” deep grunting sounds, clicks and trills. Listening for responses to electronic calls is how researchers keep track of populations of king rails, and how Department of Conservation wildlife biologists know that king rails’ visits to conservation areas in Missouri are rare.

Called and Failed

I had tried for months to photograph king rails in the wild. I started at B.K. Leach Conservation Area after Brian Loges, a Department wildlife biologist at Elsberry, told me where he’d seen king rails.

Following his advice and directions, I set up in marsh grass with my cameras and called and called and called. Then I called some more from other spots. All to no avail.

For several months, I questioned numerous bird experts about king rails and read several articles about the species. It was frustrating trying to understand the behavior of a bird that I’d never seen.

I didn’t give up, though. One

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