Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Black Rail!

Like many other birders, I was thrilled by the news of the discovery of one, maybe more, Black Rails near Circleville. Kudos to the team of Big Day'ers who found it last Sunday, June 1. Since then, scores of birders have made the trek down to the Pickaway Plains to tick this one off, even though most have only heard it.

I went Monday, and spent over two hours in the area and heard at least one rail numerous times, but Ken Beers, who was also present, heard another at the same time as I was listening to a bird on the opposite side of the road and at close range. Others have reported hearing different individuals as well. Even more curiously, we heard soft cuckoo-like calls which would seem to fit the description of a female Black Rail's calls, although I have no personal experience with that call to draw upon. This will be an interesting situation to watch unfold.

I am not much of a lister, and never have been. But, the one list I am somewhat rabid about, and that's because I have been birding in this state for so long, is my Ohio list. Black Rail was #354. But when I heard about the rail initially, it wasn't the prospect of adding another notch in my lister's belt that excited me nearly as much as the news of where this/these birds were.

Charlie's Pond.

Well, technically no, but very near Charlie's Pond. The prairie slough where the Black Rail is is part of the former vast Pickaway Plains wet prairie, and one of the few surving bits. Historically, this region just south of Circleville would have been magnificent in appearance and grand with biodiversity. The prairie was somewhere around a mile or two wide and maybe seven miles long, and was a rich tapestry of wet prairie swales and marshes, interspersed with better drained grassland and oak savannas. Nearly all is gone, converted to development and agriculture. Farm fields are heavily tiled and ditched to rid the rich black prairie soil of water. All this change, in only the last 150 years or so.

Aerial view of Charlie's Pond and vicinity. The area outlined in red is a massive, low-lying bottomland of the Scioto River. This area is right in the heart of the former Pickaway Plains, and must have been sensational prairie prior to its conversion to agriculture. The pin on the right indicates the wet swale where the rail is. The pin to its left is the true Charlie's Pond, which is an even neater habitat relict than where the rail is, and where I figured the bird was when I first heard the reports. The area outlined in blue roughly delineates a 600 acre or so area that was put into the Conservation Reserve Program about two years ago. It is now an ocean of Indian Grass, along with some other grasses and forbs. Henslow's Sparrows, Dickcissels, and other grassland species are breeding there, and noteworthy numbers of Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls wintered there. In essence, this CRP project increased the size of the Black Rail's prairie a hundred fold. Yes, I know Black Rails don't likely use tallgrass prairies like that, but they may be area-sensitive and require larger buffers around their sloughs. It is interesting that just two years after establishment of this huge CRP project, the rail(s) have occupied this wetland right on the margin of the "new" prairie grassland.

Here's a pic I took back in 2005 of the true Charlie's Pond. We are looking due west, and Charlie's Pond is the circular depression just on the other side of the road. The ditch, which was likely a low-lying sedge-dominated wetland swale back in the prairie days, is flowing into Charlie's Pond. It hooks around to the east where it crosses Radcliff Road where the rail is being seen. That's Radcliff Rd. heading east-west on the left side of the photo, and the Scioto River is in the treeline at the top of the photo.

Ground zero for the Black Raili, the wet swale bisected by Radcliff Rd., about a mile west of U.S. 23 and not far from Roundtown, or Circleville, famous for its massive Pumpkin Festival. This slough, like Charlie's Pond, contains ample evidence of the area's prairie past. Most of the truly hydric, or wet, soil is sedge-dominated. It was right here, in a fit of stupendous luck, that Ken Beers and I saw the tiny rail fly across the road right before our eyes - the first I have ever laid eyes on. At times, the rail was singing within ten feet of the road, and I made some decent recordings of the male's kik-er-doo songs last night.

This is the opposite side of Radcliff Rd., and we had the rail singing over here, too, as have others. Follow this "ditch" and you'd eventually come to Charlie's Pond. The dominant plant filling the ditch is Giant Bur-reed, Sparganium eurycarpum. Rather cattail-like in appearance, it is a very important component of wetland plant communities, and would have been far more abundant in the prairie days. Closer in, on both sides of the road, are stands of River Bulrush, Bulboschoenus fluviatilis, another important part of intact wetland plant communities. Interspersed are good populations of a number of sedges in the genus Carex. All making the rail quite happy, apparently.

Here's the watercourse shown in the other photos, father west and near to where it dumps into Charlie's Pond. All kinds of great plants still persist along the ditch, and in Charlie's Pond. King of them is the endangered Burhead, Echinodorus berteroi, one of few stations left in Ohio.

A ground-level view of Charlie's Pond, looking south. Lots of shorebirds stop over in these fields when they are at their wettest, in spring, including flocks of American Golden-Plovers. This is also the exact spot where earlier ornithologists like Milton Trautman used to find migrant flocks of Smith's Longspurs year after year. The plovers and the longspurs' migratory corridors are tied in with prairies, as that's where they would have found suitable stopover habitat in pre-settlement days. Ancestral migratory routes that evolved over thousands of years die hard, even after we've pulled the rug out from under them in regards to destroying the prairie. That's probably why, when former prairie regions have had big wetland restoration projects done within their bounds, such as at Big Island Wildlife Area and the Longbrake Wetlands in Hardin County, the birds have responded so quickly. If only Charlie's Pond could be expanded to triple or more its current size. We'd likely have Wilson's Phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, and who knows, maybe Black and/or Yellow rails breeding there as well.

A ground view of the big CRP project, looking across a sea of prairie grass towards the Black Rail swale, which is by those distant trees. Dickcissels were singing in the background when I took this picture. It's hard to say how much time we have, in terms of being able to successfully restore former prairies. Most were converted to agricultural fields a century or more ago. Yet, when projects like this one are implemented, the prairie birds still return and fast. Seedbanks still exist, and native prairie plants still spring forth if given the chance. It's nice to know that hope still exists for our prairies. As for that/those Black Rails, I wouldn't necessarily write them off as mixed-up vagrants. They may actually be the distant relatives of former occupants of a prairie mostly lost long ago.


Rhonda said...

Great story! I especially appreciated the arial shots, the description of the lay of the land, and how putting land into CRP has made a difference in a short amount of time.

The down side of this story is that it made me realize how small my yard really is. I'm not sure a bird would see my 1/6th of an acre yard from the sky!

In any case, I think you should send this write-up into newspapers as well as to people who help fund CRP!

Kathi said...


Your post says the "real" Charlie's Pond is the circular depression off River Rd, while the OOS site directions call the swale bisected by Radcliff Charlie's Pond and says the other site is misnamed.

So, which is it?

~Kathi, who is off to chase the black rail on Sunday

Great Blue Heron, with ornamental plumes

  A Great Blue Heron, a very common wading bird and a species all of us are undoubtedly familiar with. It's never productive to get jade...