CEDAR BEACH, NY – It is not a short hike to the Corn Crake. But when a bird is so rare it isn’t even listed in some North American field guides, you go. You go 50 miles east of New York City and 15 more south. You speed across South Oyster Bay, then the full length of a barrier island, to reach a beach town so boarded-up even the public bathrooms are closed. You scramble across a two-lane highway to a brushy median, high-stepping the thorns, hoping you haven’t missed it.
You fly in from Michigan, from North Carolina, from Minnesota. You ditch work and rent a car, rumble in from Manhattan against the crosstown traffic. You drive three hours to what feels like the edge of the world, November’s first deep chill sweeping in off the sea, and say, “I would have driven six to see it.”
“It only took me 58 years to see this bird,” said Paul Desjardins, who came from Connecticut. “I never thought I’d see it.”
Not since 1963 has a Corn Crake been documented in New York State, when one was shot in a remote rye field. Before that, the last record came from Grover Cleveland’s first presidency, in 1888. That’s two Corn Crakes in the past 129 years—until Ken and Sue Fuestal spotted one foraging on the side of a shoulder-less highway on Long Island, just east of New York City, on November 7.
Sue Fuestal’s announcement of the find on New York’s statewide birding listserv came with a qualifier: “This is no joke,” she wrote.
The vagrant, which should have been migrating from northern Europe to southeast Africa, grabbed the attention of the national birding community. Its sheer presence captivated more than a hundred birders who ventured to this random stretch along a two-lane parkway, where maybe the year’s rarest bird spent two days wrestling worms and dodging incoming traffic. A couple attempting a Big Year parachuted in Wednesday, as did birders from at least 10 states. On the third day—Thursday—birders arrived to find the crake dead, struck by a speeding car.
If accepted by the New York State Ornithological Association, the Long Island bird would be one of fewer than a dozen records in North America since 1928.
“A lifetime opportunity,” said David Greening, who traveled from St. Paul, Minnesota, to see the bird the day before it died. “The bird came to my attention at noon yesterday, and I was here by noon today.”
He wasn’t alone. During one three-hour stretch on Wednesday, a fluid group of least 25 people huddled on the roadside to view the bird, and more than eight cars were parked illegally. At one point, local police had to clear the cars pulled off along the side of the road for fear they would clog the morning commute. The crake-seekers that afternoon birthed a debate: What was more unlikely: this bird being here on the wrong side of the Atlantic, or this bird even being found in the first place?
“Completely ridiculous,” was how Macklin Smith, who arrived from Ann Arbor, Michigan, described it.
Meanwhile, the crake didn’t just seem content. Given an audience, it appeared pleased to shove its beak at obvious dangers, hanging out in the open despite the presence of several raptors, and scurrying perilously close (eventually, too close) to a consistent wave of zooming cars. After its untimely demise, its carcass was collected and transported to the American Museum of Natural History for study.
“I’m shocked by how far it came, all that it went through to get here,” said Amy Simmons, from Manhattan. “It feels like such a gift.”
Though it waddles and stands the size of a quail, the Corn Crake is more closely related to rails, gallinules, and coots. It breeds on grassland and farmland from northern Europe south to Turkey and east to the edge of China. It winters on savanna, sedge, and reed beds in western Africa, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to eastern South Africa.
They were fairly regular vagrants to North America in the 1800s. But like many grassland birds, Corn Crake declined significantly through the 20th century, especially in western Europe. Victims of habitat loss, crakes were squeezed out of most of their native range by farming. In the 1990s, some Scottish farmers began growing cover crops or delaying harvest to help the birds, which allowed the population to recover some. But populations have continued to decline, and they’re nearly extirpated from Ireland and Scotland, where they were once common. That makes them rare in their typical range—and even rarer as vagrants.
“Usually, even with extremely rare birds, you have an idea of what might show up,” said Keith Camburn, who came from North Carolina. “This wasn’t on my radar whatsoever.”
Camburn woke up Wednesday morning at his home outside Charlotte, his bags packed. A cold, heavy rain hit Long Island in the hours after the crake was found Tuesday, sparking speculation that the bird might not stick around long. If it flew to a new location, even the most keen-eyed birder might not be able to find it again. The Corn Crake is a secretive bird, with checkered brown and rufous plumage made to blend with barrier-beach shrubbery, not unlike that lining the parkway.
All of this made rare-bird aficionados (also called “twitchers”) like Camburn leery. He checked his email with the sun, and saw that, at 6:16 a.m., a prominent local birder had re-found the bird. Camburn was on a plane by 9:15 a.m.
“My record is 45 minutes,” Camburn said. “Home to flight.”
Once at the beach, Camburn hopped across the highway, squeezed through the shrubby median, and found a crowd staring across two lanes of blacktop. The Corn Crake scurried between some bushes, showing itself well. Camburn, Smith, and Greening own some of the largest life lists in North America, all eclipsing 900 species, and they often chase rarities together.
Notable is the moment when they all get a new bird at once. Arms around each another, they snapped a group picture, and wondered aloud where the next surprise would lead them.