March 2015 Bird Photo of the Month

King Rail sees me! © Maria Heffernan
King Rail (Rallus elegans)

Have you seen this bird? Most people haven’t because it is so secretive, hiding and blending in with grasses along water’s edge. Yet it is a “local Florida bird,” a widespread year-round resident, that nests in freshwater marshes in central and southern Florida, especially the St. Johns River and the Everglades. Taken at the Viera Wetlands, Maria Heffernan’s photo (Canon 7D Mark II, Canon 100-400mm lens at 260mm, ISO 250, 5.6, 1/1000 sec) even captures this King Rail’s long toes that allow it to distribute its weight to walk on soft mud and plants.

How can we learn what King Rails eat? Ornithologists have dissected King Rail stomachs and found it has a varied diet that changes seasonally: aquatic insects, frogs, fishes, small crustaceans (e.g. crayfish and fiddler crabs), some aquatic plant seeds and occasionally odd items such as berries, mice, or acorns. These scientists also find regurgitated pellets of indigestible matter, such as crustacean and clamshells.

For birdwatchers, sometimes it is a challenge to learn what the essential characteristics are to look for, to differentiate very similar species. The Clapper Rail, similar in appearance but preferring salt water, may overlap the King Rail’s territory in brackish water. The Clapper Rail’s call notes and coloring slightly differ from the King Rail’s.

Populations of rails severely declined from the 1930s, and especially since the 1980s from loss of wetlands through agriculture, urban and industrial developments. All human encroachment on wildlife habitats results in tremendous loss of diversity and can lead to decline and extirpation of wildlife populations. This affects humans by reducing opportunities to develop nutritious foods, medicinal remedies, and other unknown benefits. Wildlife conservation and natural-area preservation helps both humans and wildlife as we are part of, and depend upon, nature.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society

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