Note: I wrote this post back in 2013 or 2014, but never published it. I updated the eBird range maps and added song and call recordings from xeno-canto for each species. If you have any info to add, please do so in the comments. Thanks!
When birding a new place, it is helpful to have an idea on the status and distribution of various birds in the area. In this post, I’m going to discuss the distribution and identification of Ridgway’s, Virginia, and Black Rails in the lower Colorado River Valley (LCRV).
ID: The largest of the three rails. Overall color is dull or grayish brown, but adults will have an orange-rufous neck and breast and have bold barring on flanks (Rush et al. 2012). The bill is long, and dusky-orange in color. Juveniles have a light gray-colored breast, no barring on the flanks, and the bill is dull gray, while the face is orange (Sibley 2003).
Habitat: Ridgway’s Rails prefer dense marsh vegetation, but will also occur in moderately dense cattail and bulrush marshes. (Rosenberg et al. 1991). Some water depth is necessary year round in order to provide optimal breeding and wintering habitat as well as residual mats of marsh vegetation (Eddleman 1989).
Territory Size: 0.12–3.59 ha – approximately 100 m x 100 m to 200 m x 200 m (Bennett and Ohmart 1978)
Status and Distribution: Ridgway’s Rails are uncommon to fairly common summer residents and breeders along the lower Colorado River (LCR) from the southern part of the valley north to Topock Marsh in Havasu NWR (Rosenberg et al. 1991). Out of the three rail species discussed here, the Ridgway’s Rail is reported on more eBird checklists than Black Rail, but less than Virginia Rail (See Figure 1. Below).
Calls and Function:
- Kek-kek-kek-kek – primary male advertising call (Scott et al. 2012)
- Clapper or Clatter – primary call given by paired birds during breeding season (Scott et al. 2012)
ID: Larger than Black Rail, but smaller than Ridgway’s Rail. Adults look similar to adult Ridgway’s Rails, but have a gray face rather than an all orange face. The bill of the adult is longer and thinner than Ridgway’s Rail and the breast and neck is a rich reddish color. The juvenile is extremely dark compared to juvenile Ridgway’s Rails, with dark blotches on the chest instead of a light gray-orange color (Sibley 2003). Virginia Rails apparently have more red on the bill than Ridgway’s Rails (Conway 1995).
Habitat: Freshwater wetlands with shallow water, emergent cover, and moist soil (Conway 1995).
Territory Size: No good estimate
Status and Distribution: Virginia Rail is a fairly common and local spring and summer breeder in the LCRV (Rosenberg et al. 1991). From March through June in Arizona and California, Virginia Rails are reported on a higher percentage of eBird checklists than both Clapper and Black Rails.
Calls and Function:
- Kiddick call – primarily given by males and given during a brief time in spring (Conway 1995)
- Duetting grunt – given by pairs and is most frequent (Conway 1995)
- K-K-K-Keerr – probably a primary breeding call giving infrequently in early spring and may be similar to Kek-burr call given by Ridgway’s Rail females (Conway 1995)
- Juvenile birds give one-parted squeaks
ID: A tiny rail, the smallest of the three discussed here. All-dark bird with white speckling on the back and a rufous nape. Also note the short, pointed tail, small, black bill, and red eye (Sibley 2003). NOTE – You will probably never see this bird.
Habitat: Freshwater marshes, wet meadows, and flooded grassy vegetation. Generally breeds in areas with shallower water than Ridgway’s and Virginia Rails. For Arizona, Black Rails prefer a water depth of < 3 cm (Eddleman et al. 1994).
Territory Size: 0.4 ha – approximately 20 m x 20 m (Rosenberg 1991)
Status and Distribution: Probably the species of rail you are least likely to detect throughout the LCRV as the population was estimated to be 100-200 individuals (Repking and Ohmart 1977).
Calls and Function:
- Primary Vocalization: ki-ki-kerrr given during breeding season; presumably by male (Eddleman 1994)
- Agitated Vocalization: growling call grr-grr-grr, repetitive brrr, or churr, churr, churr (Eddleman 1994)
- Nest Vocalization: females give a scolding call of a rapid series of soft, high-pitched, nasal ink-ink-ink-ink or nk-nk-nk-nk; males give a kik-kik-kik-kik or kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk in a similar manner (Eddleman 1994).
According to all-time eBird records for Arizona and California, Virginia Rails are reported on a higher percentage of checklists than Ridgway’s and Black Rails. Ridgway’s Rails are reported more frequently than Black Rails, which is probably due to small population size.
Figure 1. Frequency of eBird Checklists Ridgway’s, Virginia, and Black Rails are reported on in California and Arizona. Image provided by eBird (www.ebird.org) and created 2 December 2015.
Bennett, W. W. and R. D. Ohmart. 1978. Habitat requirements and population characteristics of the Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris yumanensis) in the Imperial Valley of California. Univ. of California, Lawrence Livermore Lab. Livermore, CA.
Conway, Courtney J. 1995. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.bnaproxy.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/173 doi:10.2173/bna.173
Eddleman, W.R. 1989. Biology of the Yuma Clapper Rail in the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. Final Report, Interagency Agreement No. 4-AA-30-02060. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Yuma Projects Office, Yuma, Ariz., 189 pp.
Eddleman, W. R., R. E. Flores and M. Legare. 1994. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.bnaproxy.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/123doi:10.2173/bna.123
Repking, C.F., and R.D. Ohmart. 1977. Distribution and density of black rail populations along the lower Colorado River. Condor 79:486-489.
Rosenberg, K. V., Ohmart, R. D., Hunter, W. C., and Anderson, B. W. 1991. Birds of the Lower Colorado River Valley. Univ. Ariz. Press, Tucson.
Rush, Scott A., Karen F. Gaines, William R. Eddleman and Courtney J. Conway. 2012. Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.bnaproxy.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/340
Sibley, David A. 2003. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. New York: Knopf. Print.