Tiny, winged visitor is an enigma wrapped in fluff


September 18, 1993|By TOM HORTON

It's foggy, airless, late summer, well after midnight, in the midst of a large marsh where the Patuxent River divides Anne Arundel from Prince George's County.

Greg and Nina, serious researchers I assure you, clap their hands, smack the water with canoe paddles and hoist lanterns on poles.

That's not all: They play tapes on multiple boom boxes at 100 decibels and unfurl nets of fine mesh along the edges of tidal creeks. Periodically, Nina squeezes her yellow and purple-winged plastic toy, dubbed Dinosaura.

Eeeeeewww goes Dinosaura. Eeeeeewww, something answers from deep in the marsh. It's the sound of a rail, one of the world's most secretive and enigmatic birds. You may spend years around Chesapeake Bay marshes and never see one, though their presence is as common as that of ducks.

Rails will yak it up in response to anything from a taped mating call to the clapping of hands, or even the crack of a shotgun.

They appear almost flightless, taking wing only when nearly stepped on, and then seeming to labor, legs dangling awkwardly, just to clear the tops of vegetation before plummeting back into the reeds.

Yet fly they do, almost exclusively under cover of darkness, on annual migrations that take them up to 3,000 miles, across the U.S. from Canada to Mexico.

Stranger yet, many rail species appear periodically to "burst out" of their routine migratory pathways, ending up everywhere from ships far out in the Atlantic to remote Pacific islands.

These "feeble fliers" have thus colonized habitats from snow tunnels around hot springs in Iceland to the cloud forests of New Guinea.

Of all the exotic hideaways of the rails, few are more interesting than the great nature highway formed by the Upper Patuxent River Valley as it cuts through suburban Maryland, less than 20 miles from both Washington and Annapolis.

From August until October, multitudes of the East Coast's population of sora rails, a robin-size bird weighing no more than a few ounces, funnel through the valley's unique wild rice marshes on their way south.

Since 1987, Greg Kearns, a naturalist at the Patuxent River Park, has managed to capture 57 soras in his nets and mark them with leg bands -- a remarkable feat when you consider that throughout history, ornithologists have banded only about 2,500 of the tiny birds.

Of the 57, only 18 have ever been captured again. "It is just a bird that people still know very little about," Greg says.

He and Nina Kwartin, a University of Maryland graduate student, have been prowling the river for weeks, plotting sora rail distribu- tion by their calls and from net captures.

The Patuxent's late-summer marsh is as spectacular as its rails are demure. Strong tides bring it the same rich broth of nutrients that stoke the fabled productivity of the Chesapeake salt marshes; but the upstream water here is free of the ocean taint that limits the salt marsh to a relative handful of plants able to tolerate salinity.

A jungle of species

Here, a whole jungle of species -- spatterdock, arrowhead, tearthumb, millet, pickerelweed, boneset, cattails -- riot in every variation of green.

This is all spiced delightfully with the creams and pinks of blooming mallows and hibiscus, the deep maroons of ironweed and the golds of coneflowers and marsh marigolds.

Lording over the whole is one of the bay's greatest stands of wild rice, soaring to 9 feet before the slender stalks burst into a cloud of golden flowers, the male part of the plant's seed head. Arising from this, a glossy, deep-green female spear thrusts skyward several more inches. By early September it will erupt in a feathery starburst, exposing long, ripening grains of a rice that packs four times the nutrients of its domestic kin.

Favored by rails and hosts of other migrating birds, the wild rice once extended across much greater areas of Maryland's tidal freshwater rivers. One lush stand was known as Foggy Bottom, long since filled for the mall in Washington, D.C. The rice there extended nearly to the base of the Washington Monument.

Through the night, Greg must check his nets, lest a preying owl find any captured rail before we do. But he has plenty of time to talk about the river and the marsh he so clearly loves.

He knows the rail both as ecologist and hunter. No less than five gun clubs exclusively dedicated to shooting sora rails were established here during the heyday of the sport several decades ago. He and Nina have rounded up several oldtime hunters and "pushers," men who shoved the narrow rail hunting skiffs through the marsh to jump up the birds. The researchers plan to assemble from these men an anecdotal history of how the marsh has changed over time.

Greg often mentions his mentor, Brooke Meanley, an old-time naturalist now retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Meanley explored the rice marshes here for 60 years. His charming book, "Birds and Marshes of the Chesapeake Bay Country" (Tidewater Publishers, 1975) is well worth reading.

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