Not one – but two – Yellow Rails heard 
at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge

EVERT Brown was ready. Mounted onto his camera body was a 600mm lens and enhanced microphone system to capture the sound of an elusive marsh bird that hadn’t been spotted in Colorado in 100 years.

Brown, like the other half-dozen birders who were positioned at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge at dawn on Friday, was hoping for the same enlightened experience that Eric DeFonso had when he alerted the birding world to his discovery of the distinctive tapping call from the Yellow Rail.

“It was amidst the thick bulrushes initially, probably only 5-10 yards away,” DeFonso, a crew supervisor at Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, posted onto his account at the morning of July 12, becoming the first person to detect and hear the Yellow Rail in over a century in Colorado.

“From that point,” he wrote of the sound he was hearing, “it slowly made its way westward and southward deeper into the marsh. When I left the area around 7:30 it was still audible, but becoming fainter.”

Described as “extremely secretive” and “notoriously unflushable,” the Yellow Rail is a species birders jump in the car to experience once a rare discovery is documented. Once DeFonso posted his find, birders headed to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.

Birders with cameras
Birders with cameras

Evert Brown was among those out at dawn Friday
hoping to hear the Yellow Rail’s call.

“It’s not unusual to get an oddball every year, but usually the oddball will show in migration, usually in the spring,” said Suzanne Beauchaine, manager at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. “What are they doing here now?”

And there are two Yellow Rails, according to Beauchaine, who said they were singing as loud as could be for 20 minutes on Thursday morning. Which makes it all even more strange and interesting.

Asked if she had a guess on how long the secretive marsh bird would stick around, she said, “No, because I don’t know why they’re here.”

Why are they here? 

Since DeFonso’s post on July 12, virtually every birder within driving distance of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge has been trekking out at dawn and dusk listening for the rare species. The last detection of the Yellow Rail in Colorado was at Barr Lake in July 1906, according to bird historians.

“Now, Yellow Rail is a mysterious species. It is considered one of the most secretive, difficult-to-see species of birds in all of North America. … Colorado is not in its normal migration path nor is it really near any of its main breeding areas. There is only one documented record of Yellow Rail in Colorado, dating from 1906.”

– Eric DeFonso, who first reported hearing the bird’s call 

DeFonso had been in the field conducting surveys of breeding birds under the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) program when he decided to spend the night in the Valley before traveling out the next day. He arose Tuesday morning and headed for a bit of quiet time at the Monte Vista Refuge when the ticking song of a Yellow Rail filled the air.

“Around 6:45am I pulled into the second stop on the Monte Vista auto tour and decided to check out the long watery canal for Pied-billed Grebes,” DeFonso wrote to birder friends. “No other humans were visiting the refuge, so I had the vast area all to myself. Lots of birds were singing and calling, including Marsh Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, American Coots, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Wilson’s Snipes. Some were even perched on the tops of reeds or flitting about over the water and above the wetland.

“But then I heard something really peculiar. A light, steady ticking sound was emanating from a particularly thick stand of bulrushes right by the parking lot. I immediately recognized the sound, but I did not believe it. It was the distinctive call/song of a YELLOW RAIL (Coturnicops noveboracensis).

“Now, Yellow Rail is a mysterious species. It is considered one of the most secretive, difficult-to-see species of birds in all of North America. It generally breeds in the northern tier of states and in southern Canada in sedge marshes. It winters along the US Gulf Coast and is rarely encountered in migration. Its history in Colorado is even more shrouded in mystery and confusion. Colorado is not in its normal migration path nor is it really near any of its main breeding areas. There is only one documented record of Yellow Rail in Colorado, dating from 1906.”

Knowing that by telling the birding world he had heard a Yellow Rail in the San Luis Valley would immediately put into question his credentials, he reached out to Nathan Pieplow, a teaching assistant professor at CU who has researched and written about the Yellow Rail.

He told Pieplow the sound he heard and the bird he thought it came from, but wanted to make sure and sent Pieplow a sound file.

“The minute I saw his text, I thought ‘I don’t know what he’s hearing but it’s not going to be a Yellow Rail,” Pieplow said. “I was not in a particular hurry to get to the sound file and listen to it.”

Then he did, and thought, “Oh my gosh, this has the right rhythm, that distinctive rhythm pattern that nothing else has.”

With Pieplow’s confirmation and within an hour after DeFonso spread the news on eBird, birders from Denver and elsewhere were driving down to the Valley to hear the Yellow Rail for themselves.

Both Beauchaine and Pieplow said the weekend will draw even more birding tourists into the Valley. But the question remains – why? And why now?

“All of the Yellow Rails in the world should be in Canada or northern Minnesota,” said Pieplow. “These birds are something like 700 to 1,000 miles south of where they should be this time of year.”

Beauchaine said she’s been conducting her own field work in the same area of the refuge as the Yellow Rails are singing and had not heard them before this week, which means they likely haven’t been nesting at the refuge.

“If it’s true that they were not here earlier in the summer and showed up and are signing now, I have a couple of speculative guesses, but they’re purely speculative,” Pieplow said.

One theory is that the Yellow Rail is heading south for fall migration much earlier than normal and found suitable marsh habitat in Monte Vista as they follow their summer instincts and head south.

Another guess, said Pieplow, is they could be reclaiming their historical range? Whatever the reason, there is zero chance of actually seeing the Yellow Rail. The singing is joyful enough.

“It’s pretty remarkable actually,” said Pieplow. “This is an extremely unexpected discovery.”

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