Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Really Ugly Bird?

I love birds. Everyone who knows me knows that. I think they are beautiful and, truthfully, I have never seen an ugly bird. Yes, I’ve seen some candidates for ugly. Vultures and cormorants come to mind. I know they are repugnant to some people, but not to me. I find even these birds beautiful in their own way.

I spent a couple of days on the Delaware coast last weekend reveling in the one of my favorite birding habitats. Driving slowly along a road through a salt marsh looking for anything with wings in reach of my camera lens, I was taken aback by a comment from a woman, undoubtedly a local. She was relaxing in chair near a gut in the marsh where she had been crabbing. She sized me up as a birder and called out in a friendly way, “There’s one ugly bird over there,” pointing off in the direction from which I had come. She had no idea what it was. She just knew it was ugly. I had a visceral reaction, feeling I needed to refute this claim, but it was tough, not even knowing the species that had offended her aesthetic sense. So I let it pass, replied that I must have missed that one, and asked how the crabbing was going.

Later, I couldn’t stop wondering what bird she might have seen. This is the time when “hatch year” birds are out and about, learning how to cope with the world, finding food on their own. The plumage of some of them can be a bit disheveled, but not as much as that of some adults in the middle of a molt. Was it a molting bird she saw? An “ugly” molting bird?

I assumed the woman saw a largish bird. Most non-birders don’t pay attention to sparrow-sized birds, so perhaps she had spotted a rail, or one of its babies that I had just driven from Northern Virginia with hopes to see?

Clapper Rails, the rail species that inhabits salt and brackish water marshes are not colorful or elegant. They have large feet, thick legs, short tails on plump bodies and walk around in tidal areas, so they can get a bit muddy. Their elusive nature and infrequent flights makes them often difficult to find, and so they are all the more interesting.

Clappers lay as many as 12 eggs which hatch asynchronously. Lighthouse Road, near Slaughter Beach, is a great place to observe rails, and I did succeed in seeing young of different ages, although I doubt that they were all siblings. They are downy when they hatch with their eyes open. They are mobile within an hour and can follow their parents, but still need to be fed for awhile. This one with its parent is the youngest I saw on this trip. It had no feathers yet.

This somewhat older one was catching its own food quite competently, and I noticed that plenty of fiddler crabs were available.

Now, some people (perhaps that woman) might not consider a young rail a beautiful bird, or to put it another way, think it an ugly bird. Rails may be cute and cuddly when they are black, downy, fluff balls, but August finds many of them at that “awkward” age.

This one has brown and gray body feathers, but it is retaining black down on the top of its head and that makes its plumage a kind of a mishmash. Its bill has almost changed from its pied, blackish and pinkish color to mostly gray; its legs are also gray. Not much of a fashion statement here, but the bird won't be wearing this outfit for long.

This one is a bit older, I believe, but I could be wrong. It has lost all of its down and it looks like wing feathers are still within their shafts. Still, a bit of a mess, but improving.

OK, I think they are cute at all ages, beautiful even. Watching the young scamper after mom and practice the skills which will allow them to survive independently is great fun. I believe appreciating these birds on their own terms is the key to seeing them as quite lovely creatures.

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