I’ve been watching Ridgway’s rails at Martin Luther King Shoreline/Arrowhead Marsh for over twenty years. There are two schools of thought regarding the best times to see these reclusive birds—low tide and high tide. Low tide is the winner.
There are two low tides and two high tides every day, so find a tide chart for the area and visit the area at the lowest tide of the day. You should see vast mudflats stretching out towards the deeper water. Look along the edge of the vegetation and listen. The “kek kek kek kek” call of the rail is distinctive and is often the first indicator that rails are present. You can listen to their calls at the All About Birds website.
Go to MLK/Arrowhead Marsh to hear the Ridgway’s rail’s calls in person. It has drawn me as surely and intricately and fully as the call of the Sandhill crane, described by Aldo Leopold as wilderness incarnate. Indeed! These two birds are forever etched in my psyche. They have provided such insights and joy to literally last a lifetime, and have shaped my appraisal of human interaction and action on every level. But this article celebrates just the wonderful rail. This bird might be able to explain everything, the large and small. It is appropriate to wax poetic while observing rails.
An adult Ridgway’s rail weighs in at 10 ounces, is 14.5 inches long, and has a 19-inch wingspan. The chicks, once they appear, are tiny. And unlike the gray/brown/reddish adult, the chicks are black except for white at the tip of their bill. Although Ridgway’s are often described as secretive and elusive, they can be quite bold, unafraid, and more than willing to show themselves for long periods at time if the observer is quiet and patient.
They will allow intimate encounters to be witnessed when conditions are right. Their diet consists of crustaceans, mollusks, small fish, worms, and other small prey. They regularly eat clams and swallow them whole, shell and all. Their nests are built in vegetation, high up to protect against tidal flooding. Both parents take part in raising the young—I have witnessed this many times. Clutch size is between three and 14 eggs, although the most chicks I’ve seen is six, which is plenty.
It is epic to witness the juveniles, and it is important to celebrate their success. Every baby Ridgway rail that grows to adulthood brings the species one step further away from extinction. They have an amazing ability to nurture conservation values within the hearts of humans. See one walking out of the vegetation and onto the mudflats and you are immediately transported to a very profound natural exhibit. Several times, with the boardwalk full of birders, young rails have ‘ooohed & awed’ the onlookers and a singular thrill was shared by the group. This mutual recognition of something bigger than ourselves is one of the reasons we choose to bird. It is the ring that binds us all.
Ridgway’s rail is both a federal and California endangered species. Once known as California clapper rails, these birds were renamed in to honor Robert Ridgway, curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s United States National Museum from 1869 to 1929. Today, habitat loss, habitat degradation, and human encroachment remain critical challenges to the ongoing success and sustainability of Ridgway’s Rails. Organizations such as Save the Bay, Golden Gate Bird Alliance (formerly Golden Gate Audubon Society), and East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), to name a few, do important work and advocate for the protection, restoration, and conservation of our waterways, resources, and parks—important habitats for Ridgway’s rails and other wildlife.
Rick Lewis is a long time member of Golden Gate Bird Alliance and other environmental organizations. He contributes often to Bay Area and Central Valley birding groups that promote wildlife and habitat conservation. This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve (FAWR), a Conservation Committee of Golden Gate Bird Alliance.