Friday, August 8, 2014

All hail the King (rail) of Bayonne!

Wow, was all I could say. I went to Bayonne to find a new species for my New Jersey birding list, and I was astounded by what else I found.

The New Jersey birding community has been abuzz with the sighting of a King rail near the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, a natural oasis of sorts nestled among the city's shipping terminals and oil tanks. Finding rare avian visitors in industrialized areas is no real shock for local birders - as we've found often in Hudson County, pockets of nature thrive where some would assume it to be impossible, and water quality has improved enough to host wildlife. I wasn't quite sure what I'd find there, but I was prepared for just about anything. Maps of the area showed a good-sized green area labeled "Bayonne Golf Club" on a tract of land jutting into upper New York Bay. Rather than looking into it before my trip, I just headed out, road directions in hand.

As for the King rail, it's a rarer visitor to New Jersey's marshes than the species usually seen here, the Clapper rail. Well, it's usually more "hearing" than "seeing": secretive by nature, rails generally live among the reeds and grasses of wetlands, frustrating birders by their clapping calls. (Needless to say, rails are masters at the game of Marco Polo.)  If you're going to see them at all, it's likely to be at low tide as they come out to feed on crustaceans and insects. Clappers tend toward saltwater marshes, while Kings are freshwater birds, with the two species sometimes sharing space (and cross mating) in brackish marshes. Bayonne, located on the bay where Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean waters meet and mix, is apparently geographically desirable for Kings and Clappers.

After a wrong turn that landed me in Bayonne's Marine Ocean Terminal, I found parking for the Walkway in a strip mall lot. I was barely out of my car when I saw a binocular-wearing couple coming off the path. "Here for the rail?" one asked. Just down the path a bit, alongside the long bridge, he told me, adding that other birders were still there. The usual rule was in force: when in doubt where to find a chase bird, look for the crowd.

The walkway winds along the northern edge of what's traditionally known as Constable Hook, with an inlet on one side and a reclaimed landfill on the other. This, as I discovered, was no typical capped landfill, but more on that in a moment. The wild grasses and flowers on the undulating slope put me in the mind of Scotland or Ireland, and the goldfinches perching on the thistles had to agree that someone had done a good job of making a nice habitat. I noticed a few egrets in the inlet to my left, patiently waiting for an early lunch to swim by.

The farther I walked along, the more the pieces came together. The "Bayonne Golf Club" I'd seen on the map isn't a city owned course; it's an all-out exclusive country club, modeled after the traditional links courses in Scotland. At the crest of the hill was a large, expensive-looking clubhouse with a huge American flag flying beside it. According to designer Eric Bergstol, as quoted on, the economics of converting the landfill and doing the necessary wetlands mitigation blew the concept of a low-cost public links course out of the water, so it appears he hit for the fences. Bulldozer-sculpted hills and dales are lined by grasses, shrubs and flowers recommended by a Rutgers agronomist, all within the backdrop of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and the container cranes of the port. As part of the deal, the developers were required to provide public access to the waterfront, hence the walkway.

The King rail had found a home in a most regal environment.

Fortunately, if a rule of finding chase birds is to find the crowd, the next rule is to look wherever you see someone aiming their optics. As I crossed the bridge on the walkway, I encountered a man with a viewing scope aimed between the railing and support struts. Maybe he had the rail? I walked up slowly, figuring not to scare it if it was there. It wasn't, but the consolation was a very cooperative Yellow-crowned night heron, plus more specific guidance on the rail's whereabouts. It wasn't much farther - maybe 100 feet.

Two birders were on the site as I arrived, waiting for the secretive rail to emerge from the grass to forage on the small patch of mud to the side of the bridge. A little farther down, where a wider mudflat held a stream, they'd seen a rail chick who was a bit less shy, and in the distance they'd noticed a Clapper rail.

Yup, that's the King rail, right in the middle.
Knowing I wouldn't be able to differentiate a King rail chick from a Clapper rail chick, I decided to wait the adult King out by the mud patch. A moment or two later, I noticed some movement in the grass, just behind the first layer of reedy grass. Looking closer, I was pretty sure it was the King (overall, they're a rustier shade than their cousins), but it was tough to tell because he was preening. I wasn't going to let that be the sum of my first-ever look at his species, so I sat down to wait, staring at that patch of grass as the occasional golf cart whirred past behind me.

It may sound crazy, but in situations like that, I like to send a mental message to the bird, letting him know it's safe and I just want to admire him. Sometimes it works; other times it rises to levels of frustration that nearly lead me to a Sheldon Cooper-type tantrum.

Are we in golf heaven? No, Bayonne.
This time it worked. Like an actor coming onstage, the rail emerged from the curtain of grass to walk to an open area where I could see him completely. Stopping, he posed with his wings raised above his back, as if to air them. Then, like a model, he walked a few more steps and turned, allowing me to see the rest of him as I committed him to memory.

Just as I was thanking the bird for being so cooperative, a golf cart stopped behind me and the King ducked back into the grass. Two course employees were wondering why so many binocular-toting people had been standing around the bridge for the past few days. Pulling out my Sibley guide to show them, I explained the significance of the rail and complimented them on the golf club's work to create a good environment for birds. It didn't occur to me until now that the rail was as much of a VIP (or VIB) as any of the club's members, and he didn't require use of the club's exclusive boat or helicopter to get to the links.

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