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 evening after a long day of rain, I sat concealed in smartweed playing my electronic calls.

I started by calling every 10 seconds, then I switched to every 30 seconds. It was quiet, but then suddenly a bird responded with “kek, kek, kek, jupe, jupe, jupe.”

I grabbed my camera and aimed toward the sound. All I could see was thick vegetation.

As I searched, the bird called again, but this time the sound was much louder. I turned my head and saw a male king rail standing no more than 3 feet behind me.

I froze for fear of spooking the bird. It pecked around nearby, even investigating my camera backpack. A female bird later showed up, then the pair chased one another off into the tall vegetation.

I was mad at myself for not being prepared. Because I hadn’t seen king rails the other times, I’d become lax and wasn’t set up and ready for when they finally did appear. In my years of photographing wildlife, this was by far my most embarrassing moment.

Although they never got that close again, the birds circled around and called for the next two hours, and I was able to capture my first king rail images.

Caught in the Act

Now that I knew the pair’s location, I was eager to return. I was optimistic that, if properly set up, I could get some good pictures. After all, not only had I not spooked the king rails, they seemed to completely ignore my presence, even when they had been at my feet.

That’s why, three days later—my first opportunity—I was watching the sun rise at the very same spot.

I played my electronic call for 30 minutes with no response. I was thinking I might be wasting my time, when I was startled by a splash of water. A king rail was swimming directly toward me.

It certainly wasn’t a wasted morning. I had the bird in front of me for hours. The rail wasn’t bothered by me as long as I didn’t make sudden movements. When I slid through the mud or adjusted my camera angle, the rail would retreat into the smartweed a little ways, but she’d soon come back out again.

After a while, I was observing the bird more than I was taking pictures. As I watched, she suddenly stopped moving. Seconds later a male bird approached from behind, and the female lowered her head in a submissive pose.

I reached for my camera and fired away. The mating lasted for only a few seconds. When it was over and the birds had left, I worried whether I’d had them in focus or if there might have been a branch in front of them. My hands were shaking as I checked the LCD screen on the back of the camera. I scrolled through the images and was relieved to find that I’d gotten all I could hope for. I’d even captured some images I didn’t recall taking.

Next, the Nest

After my success with the mating birds, I decided to try to take pictures of a king rail nest and brood.

Female king rails lay an average of about 11 eggs. The eggs are a pale buff color with brown markings. Both adults incubate the eggs, which hatch in a little over three weeks. The chicks are downy black and leave the nest within a day after hatching. Adults feed them for a few days, but the chicks often stay with their parents for more than a month.

If king rails are hard to find, locating king rail nests is next to impossible. I returned to the area several more times searching for the nest or brood but never had any luck.

Then, almost by accident, Ron Bell, manager of Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Mound City, and I found what we thought to be a king rail nest. We weren’t sure because it had been more than 30 years since a king rail nest had been confirmed at the Squaw Creek refuge. But, as we stood in waist deep water wondering about our find, we heard the unmistakable call of a king rail. Then, a male and female king rail ran back and forth in front of us.

Ron marked the location of the nest with his GPS unit. When we checked it a week later, all the eggs were hatched and the brood was gone. We’re hoping the birds will return next year.

A few weeks later, Candy Chambers, assistant refuge manager at Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge in Annada, called to tell me about a king rail brood she saw early that morning. I met with her that afternoon, and she took me to the brood right away.

I spent the next several hours observing and photographing an adult king rail and her four 2-week-old chicks foraging for food along a mud flat. In fact, I made many more trips during the next month to capture the birds with my cameras. After a few trips, they just seemed to ignore me and would feed, rest and bathe no more than 3 feet from me.

It wasn’t easy out there. Many days I spent 12 hours under the hot summer sun and under constant attack by mosquitoes and ticks. I got some unique pictures, though; and for a wildlife photographer, there’s no better reward.

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