OLIVE OIL ICE CREAM AND FEATHERED SWAMP MICE

Merida has the finest Roman ruins in Spain. It is also has fine restaurants. One serves Cherry Gazpacho with a dollop of Olive Oil Ice Cream.  This dish also contains pork—not surprising in a locale renowned for Iberian Ham, which requires acorn-fed, free-ranging hogs.  The soup was so delicious Mary and I ate at the same restaurant two of our three evenings in Merida.

As friends asked about our trip, we found ourselves always describing the gazpacho.  Yet, we had other excellent dining especially seafood and once, a spectacular mushroom risotto served on the street at lunch.   But mostly we described the gazpacho because it was rare and different. We assumed others would never have heard of it.   

Of course, for me, there was something else about Merida.  The city has the longest surviving ancient bridge with a span of 755 meters.  Better yet, the span crosses some wetlands harboring a species of the rail family—the Western Swamphen.  When I wasn’t enjoying great meals or touring the ancient Roman Coliseum, Circus, and Temple of Diana, I walked out to the bridge and peered into the swamp.  Eventually, I was rewarded with a great view of a Western Swamphen and chick.   I wondered if the ancient Romans noticed them.

Western Swamphen (Merida, Spain-2022)

I enjoy seeking out rare and difficult-to-find birds, many of which reside in wetlands.  Some of these are celebrated in a book on my shelf entitled: Rare and Elusive Birds of North America, by William Burt.  Most of the profiles in this book are about rails, sometimes called crakes.

My desire to study rails supports a frequent comment from my brother that “there’s a nut for everything.”  Rails have been called mice with feathers.  It would be more accurate to call them swamp-mice with feathers because wetlands are their primary habitat.   In addition, they are reluctant to fly, relying on “rail-roads,” that is, trails and tunnels within the thick vegetation. 

My first encounter was with a Black Rail on Galveston Island, Texas in 1980.  I had a business trip to Houston.  Knowing the Texas coast was a birding hotspot, I brought my backpacking tent in an extra suitcase.  It seems remarkable today; I was able to drive down on a spring weekend and easily find a camping spot in the state park. 

I was armed with a A Birder’s Guide to the Texas Coast, one of a series of guides to famous birding areas.  In the days before ebird and the internet, these so-called “Lane-guides” (James A. Lane was a co-author) were highly prized for their specific directions to prime birding locations.  After a windy and rainy night, I was walking toward a marsh and encountered an elderly couple with a large parabolic receiver for recording bird calls. Once recorded, the call could be played back in hopes of enticing the bird to show itself. 

The couple appeared friendly, so I approached. “A Black Rail!” one of them said softly.  At this phase of my birding life, I knew rails as a photo in a book.  They were not species I expected to see or even try to see.  After whispering introductions, I learned that the bird responding from the marsh was both rare and more rarely seen.

By today’s standards, our birding etiquette was cringeworthy—too much playback.  Today, birders are satisfied with a well-documented hearing or recording but we tried hard to spy the bird.  The lady of the pair had a glimpse of the bird’s face, but her husband and I never saw anything although we were within three feet of the rail for 20-30 minutes before giving up. 

Subsequently, the couple told me how lucky I was to have experienced a Black Rail.  Further, they informed me that last night’s wind and rain was the reason they had driven two hours to the coast. That storm had been what was known locally as a “Norther.”  What made it so important is that a wind blowing from the north in late March or early April is in the face of oncoming spring migrants crossing the Gulf of Mexico.  These birds, weary already, work extra hard to make landfall and often pitch into the first tree or shrub they can find.  This being a coastal plain, the few trees might harbor a dozen or more birds.  Although it immediately made sense, this phenomenon had been unknown to me.  “You have to go to the Old House,” they said.  They had already checked small nearby trees before being distracted by the resident Black Rail.

The “Old House,” where an owner had planted shrubs and trees before abandoning, was amazing.  In the same small tree were an Orchard Oriole, a Prothonotary Warbler, a Great Crested Flycatcher, a White-eyed Vireo, a Tennessee Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler.  In the shrubs underneath were a Worm-Eating Warbler and a Swainson’s Warbler. My new friends seemed happier for me than I was.  I did not understand until later what a treasure trove of sightings this was.  Indeed, Swainson’s Warblers as well as Black Rails are profiled in that same book about “Rare and Elusive Birds.”  Seeing one perched in the open was truly fortunate.  Seven of those species were “lifers,” birds I had never seen before, and they were all associated with a single small tree, less than ten feet in diameter. 

That previous night’s heavy rain had filled all the ditches and marshlands such that other birds had been forced to higher ground.  Hence, I spied another rail later that day—the less-reclusive and larger Clapper Rail.  My life with rails had begun!

According to Wikipedia, there are more than 150 species in this family that includes the more-easily seen coots and gallinules.  Twelve from this family are already extinct and others are on the brink of vanishing.  I have seen thirty.  The Black Rail, although not formally protected at the federal level, is threatened or a “species of concern” in most of the states in which it is found. 

It is no wonder. In my work life, I found that many contaminant dumps, landfills, and random disposal areas were in wetlands.   Furthermore, for most of US history, wetlands were so little valued that draining them was referred to as “reclamation.”

Fortunately, the value of wetlands is now recognized.  Coastal wetlands mitigate storm surge thereby limiting hurricane damage.   Interior wetlands are important buffers and sinks for contaminants in industrial and agriculture discharges.  One source suggests that the value of wetlands exceeds $3 billion dollars annually.  I have not reviewed the details of that estimate, but I wonder if it adequately accounts for the recreational value from waterfowl rearing, hunting, and birdwatching. 

Our attack on wetlands has been so relentless that birders are usually intimately familiar with local sewage ponds and landfills because those are where remnant populations of marsh-dwellers can find a place to survive.    Continuing today is a constant battle regarding the definition of a wetland.   A weak definition is desired by developers because federal laws require mitigation.  Climate change exaggerates this problem because historic wetlands are drying up, further squeezing the remaining homelands for rails and their allies.

That day in 1980 remains important to me because it opened my eyes to another window into nature.  I read extensively about these birds and have considered them to be primary quarry in my subsequent travels.   I have been lucky enough to have found others.

My most memorable encounters have occurred in Costa Rica.  There was, for example, the day I set out to find a White-throated Crake.  My wife and I were staying at the Las Cruces Biological Station (aka Wilson Botanical Garden) near San Vito.  We did not have a car, so I hired a taxi driver to take me to the “swamp near the airport,” which was reputed to harbor the crake. 

I asked the taxi driver to pick me up after two hours, but noticed he simply turned off the engine and planned to wait.  My directions said to stop at a house adjacent to the small airstrip and ask for permission.  The inhabitants smiled and waved me on.  Minutes later, I was ankle deep in gluey mud.  I backed up to dry ground and surveyed the area.  It looked too wet for passage and with the thickness of the vegetation and darkness of the water, I had no idea how deep it might be. 

I spied a fence about 100 meters away and thought I would try there.  Surely, if posts were in the ground, there would be an area I could walk.  Being careful, I trusted tussocks of vegetation held in place by the wire and inched my way into the marsh.   After about ten meters, I was satisfied I was far enough and played the call of the White-throated Crake.  There was an immediate response.

It is worth noting that rails are not songsters.  One of my sources describes the vocalization of White-throated Crakes as an abrupt, explosive descending trill or churr.  My own description is a rapid dry rattle.  Another example is the description for the Paint-billed Crake.  As described in Birds of the World: “Song a long, gradually accelerating series of up to 36 staccato somewhat yelping kjek notes. Occasionally followed by 3–4 short churring notes which fall in pitch, the last being a 3-second flat trill. Also, frog-like, guttural, buzzy, single notes rendered qurrrk and auuk and a mellow soft purring. Alarm a sharp twack.”  In other words, I am nutty enough to spend hours in insect-ridden swamps listening for kjek, qurrk, auk and twack.   Reading that sentence makes me reconsider my sanity and confirms my brother’s statement about a “nut for everything.”  (Why do I think he always means me when he says it?) 

Anyway, the San Vito airstrip White-throated Crake answered and was nearby.  As with my Black Rail encounter, it often is not difficult to be near a rail—it is the seeing of them that is a challenge.  In this case, I was determined. Again, I confess to overuse of playback.  In my defense, this was twenty-five years ago. Most birders are judicious these days regarding disturbing the birds they are trying to see.

I had an old-fashioned tape player. I would play the call, then hit rewind, find the call, and play it again. It was awkward and inconvenient.  I had the tape recorder in one hand, and I was both playing the call and trying not to drop the player in the marsh.  I had binoculars and an expensive camera about my neck, also needing to stay dry.  My footing was precarious.  I am glad no one was filming my fumbling efforts to use my equipment and remain balanced.

Repeatedly, I played the call, and the bird would answer so close I could not imagine why I could not see it.  I continued to shift about. Eventually, I realized the vegetation was so thick that the bird was underneath. I was not heavy enough to compress the thick mat of marshy vegetation to disrupt the rail’s passageways.   My next thought was to move slightly away in hopes that the bird would again approach the call.  I reached out with one foot—seemed solid—then the other—also seemed solid.  I slowly edged away.  Once settled, now about three meters from where the crake had been underneath, I shifted my weight to play the call but lost my balance and barely avoided falling.

Everything below me was sinking and wobbling. I was teetering on top of floating vegetation!  It was thick enough to bear my weight, but this section had separated from the rest of the heavy mat.  I was flailing — throwing around my arms and legs to stay up.  It was like balancing on a six-foot diameter piece of floating plywood.  I did not last long.   I slid into the marsh reflexively raising my arms to hold my electronics and optics above the water…but now I was waist deep in water and muck.  

Waves of emotions hit me—frustration and embarrassment foremost.  I looked to see if anyone was watching.  No one was visible at the nearby house and the taxi driver was too far away.  Quickly, discomfort seeped in along with the water.  It was hot. I was in full sun on a hot afternoon.  Half of me was ensconced in wet and sticky water and mud.  Although well-covered in repellent, insects were swarming. A few were crawling on me.   I was done. “The crake wins,” I thought.

I carefully shuffled my feet and slowly inched toward higher ground. I was fortunate to emerge without stumbling.  I slogged defeated, dripping, and smelly back to the taxi.  It was an old car so maybe the driver did not mind, but my wife did when I returned to our room.  The old tennis shoes I was wearing went to the outside trash, myself, and my other clothing to the shower to remedy as best I could.  I decided I would never see a White-throated Crake.

This was early in my Costa Rican birding experiences, and I have since, seen White-throated Crakes eleven times.   They are so common, that any birder spending enough time will finally spy one walking in the open and that eventually happened. 

In fact, on a recent trip (June 2022), I saw White-throated Crakes so easily, we were annoyed because we were after the much rarer Paint-billed and Gray-breasted Crakes.  Eventually, we saw the other two.   What is different today?  In a word…Bluetooth.   Also necessary is knowing the right person.  

With all my years of experience in Cost Rica I have made many friends among the excellent guiding community.  One of these, Daniel, lives not too far from the Panamanian border.   Sadly, this area is devastated by oil palm plantations* and rice fields.   Plowing, ditching and drainage have eliminated most of the swamplands.   The oil palm areas are dark, pesticide-laden monocultures.   Rice fields, while monocultures, at least must remain wet and still provide habitat.  Adjacent ditches and strips between these fields remain rich with marsh species.   

Daniel has an impressive ability to hear and triangulate on the various frog and insect like calls emitted by the resident crakes.  Residing nearby, he has learned where the remaining local crakes live.   I wanted to see a Paint-billed Crake.

The online resource Birds of the World refers to them as “a mysterious bird, even for a rail, a family full of mysterious species.  Nowhere easy to find…status unclear in Central America, could be accidental, migrant, or rare resident, perhaps overlooked.” Paint-billed Crakes and another rare, nearly identical species are the only members of their genus.

Besides the mystery of their status, unlike most others of their family, Paint-billed Crakes are handsome. They are mostly indigo blue with bright orange legs.  Their bright beaks are red at the base and bright yellow green at the tip.  A few months previously, I was successful having one respond to its call, but much like the White-throated Crake experience, I could not see one.  

I met up with Daniel early one morning.  This was our second outing.  On the first, some months earlier we had tried and failed to hear or see a Yellow-breasted Crake.  We had tried hard.  It is difficult for both birder and guide when such a quest fails.  Daniel had been regularly finding the bird, quite rare in this part of the country. Yet, that evening, it would not cooperate.   Daniel knew I had made an unpleasant drive over poorly marked unpaved roads and would have to return after dark.   I began thinking what a nice afternoon and evening it would have been at the beach.  I considered myself stupid for abandoning my wife for six or seven hours and complicating our dinner plans.  Instead of a relaxing evening I had a harrowing return drive almost colliding with a couple of bike riders on the obscure, dusty back roads.   I certainly did not blame Daniel, but we had parted feeling exasperated.   

Now I was back, and we had heard Paint-billed Crakes in two locations, far out in the swamp.  Daniel shrugged and said something like, “the only way to see one would be to go in there with them.”  I responded, “Let’s go.”  He looked up, surprised. “Really?”  “I’m prepared,” I said.  I had worn a pair of old canvas shoes that I could abandon if necessary.  I had a walking stick for balance.  

Daniel removed his shoes and waded in barefoot.  I followed, our feet slurping and slipping as we moved along.   This was a shallow swamp.  A misstep would not cause a plunge into deep water, but a mucky face plant was still probable. More likely was to lose a shoe in the sticky muck.

After a few minutes, Daniel pointed to a small, narrow ditch dug by one of the big tires of the rice field tractors after having been mired and then digging itself out.  Here is where Bluetooth came in.   Daniel set a small speaker on one side of the ditch, and we positioned ourselves to have an unobstructed view if an approaching crake crossed to find its presumed rival.

It was easy.   These crakes are rarely disturbed.  Hence, they respond readily.   Birding groups do not try for them because it would be impossible for more than two or three people to be in position to see.   Being in the swamp amidst them, even I could hear the crakes.  Two approached and within minutes I had obtained great binocular views.   The lighting angle, the narrow ditch and rapidly running crakes precluded photography but I was, as they say, “a happy camper.”

Driving back, I asked Daniel about Gray-breasted Crakes.  These are detected by their calls now and then, but this species is the rail most difficult to see in Costa Rica.  Detections, most of which are “heard-only birds,” number less than 1000 according to the ebird online database.  In contrast, White-throated Crake detections are nearly 15,000. I had asked other guides about them.  They rolled their eyes and shook their heads. Daniel simply said they were “really hard.”  The fact that he had not shut off the idea, however, clung in my brain.

Back in his part of the country on a family trip six months later, I contacted Daniel.  “What about trying for a Gray-breasted Crake?” I asked.  “We can try,” he responded.

I do not know which part was luck, skill, or prior scouting/preparedness, but a Gray-breasted Crake responded at the first location we tried.   My son in law, Ryan, was accompanying us.  We had borrowed rubber knee boots.  There was also a wide bare spot in the mud for good viewing and the sun was behind us.   Daniel placed the speaker about ten foot distant and across the open space from where the crake had responded.  We did not have to wait long.   The crake did not dash across but sauntered.  I obtained great photos.  This crake is a close cousin of the Black Rail I had listened to so many years ago in Texas; the primary difference being lime green on the lower mandible as opposed to the bill of the Black Rail which is black.  

Gray-breasted Crake (June 2022)

This had happened so fast, I suggested we try again for a Paint billed crake.   Maybe Ryan could see one. Maybe I could obtain a photo.  Initially, we tried near where we had seen them six months ago. No luck.  We drove to another location nearby.   We waded into the shallow marsh.  Here, we had success. A Paint-billed Crake was calling.  We set up as before–the speaker in an excellent location for viewing the bird. We spied movement.  Here it came. But!  It was a White-throated Crake.   Three times the same or another White-throated Crake came into view—the only times I have been disappointed to see a crake.  At last, two Paint-billed Crakes arrived. 

Paint-billed Crake (June 2022)

After three or four brief appearances as they jumped over the bare area, one moved stealthily through the reeds.  The yellow and orange-red beak reminded me of Easter’s candy corn.  The large orange-red feet matched the beak and the color of Cherry Gazpacho!

*Palm Oil is responsible for a tremendous loss of habitat throughout the world. Its production also exacerbates climate change and causes other environmental damage. Here is a site where you can learn how to minimize your own usage of palm oil products: https://rspo.org/

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