I had to dig through the box to find rubber boots to fit my feet. The only ones my size were hip waders. After donning them, I strutted outside the visitor center at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge for our Yellow Rail orientation.
David Sarkozi, our guide from the Friends of Anahuac Refuge, held up a rope with several gallon-sized milk jugs attached across its length. “The jugs are filled with rocks,” he said. “We will drag the rope through marsh to flush the rail. We will need to stomp our feet as we go and maintain a pretty good pace in order to flush the birds.”
I could hardly walk on the concrete. How was I going to stomp through the stiff, clumpy Gulf Cord Grass, the rail’s habitat?
David continued, “At the pace we will go, someone will go down in the mud. But don’t worry; we’ll help you get up.”
I raised my hand, “What happens if someone can’t keep up with the group?”
David advised that I follow along on the road adjacent to the spot where they would be trekking. “You will be able to see the rail at the same time as the rest of us.” I was disappointed. It was hard to make a sensible decision.
There are two kinds of grass in the refuge’s coastal prairie. One is favored by the Yellow Rail and the other by the Black Rail. David’s goal was for the group to see both rails if possible.
“When the bird flushes up, it will fly a short way and then settle back down in the grass,” David explained. “You will be able to identify which rail it is by the white patch on the wing feathers that are visible when it flies.”
After slathering or spraying insect repellent, some piled into the refuge van, while the rest of us followed in our cars for the short drive to the Yellow Rail Prairie.
Barb decided to join me in watching from the road – a smart decision for both of us. They started trekking through the marshy grass at a good clip, stomping and shaking the rope. Periodically they would stop to rest.
Pretty soon, one of the women started getting further and further behind, and finally turned around the joined us on the road.
After about 10 minutes, David yelled “Rail,” and we saw the white patches on the rail’s wing as it flew out, then settled back down in the grass a short distance ahead of the group. They marched off again until the rail flushed a second time. At this point, they headed further into the prairie, where there was another type of grass, in hopes of flushing a Black Rail – with no luck.
As we headed back to the visitor’s center, we stopped to gaze at an American Alligator, lounging by the side of the road.
After we had gotten our boots off and bought our souvenirs to support the Friends of Anahuac, David answered questions. The Rail Walks are only conducted during four weekends each spring, so they are not disturbing the birds once they start to nest. The Friends obtain a license that is equivalent to conducting a ‘hunt,’ “However,” David explained, “no birds are killed.”
We felt lucky to have the opportunity to observe this secretive bird.