It’s a hot evening, and the mosquitos near the marsh are terrible. But, it’s worth it to try and band the elusive Yuma Ridgway’s Rails on the Gila River—for science, and because I love seeing these birds up close. We listen closely for their “Kek” calls.
With the sun beginning to set, we have to work quickly. A Rail finally announces itself. We sit silently. Then, one of the little rails walks out in front of us and crosses into a patch of cattails. We begin setting up the traps.
Eamon Harrity, a researcher from University of Idaho places the traps carefully in the marsh and we wait as he sets up his equipment. Suddenly, we hear some flapping from the cattails. Eamon dives into the cattails and comes back up with a Rail. We admire it closely. This is certainly the closest any of us have ever come to one of these secretive birds. It’s about the size of a chicken. My eyes are immediately drawn to its long orange bill.
“It’s a female,” says Eamon. As we start to take measurements, she waits patiently and is surprisingly cooperative. We measure her wings, bill, feet, and weight—all valuable data for better understanding this secretive bird. Eamon begins to custom fit a small backpack to her and explains that the transmitter works with satellites to collect GPS coordinates on where exactly the bird is in the world. That data he explains is extremely valuable in understanding the migration of these endangered birds. We know very little about how these birds move around here on the Gila River. We know even less about their migration habits or where they spend their winters.
Audubon’s hope is that by gathering data on these elusive birds we can paint a broader picture of how we can focus our conservation efforts on the Gila River. This is increasingly important as the Gila River continues to change due to drought, diversions for human use, and a changing climate. These changes could affect their foraging habitat given that Yuma Ridgway’s Rails specialize in eating small fish, crustaceans, mollusks and aquatic insects. Audubon’s present theory is that agricultural outflow sites and drainages create important marsh habitat and foraging areas for the rails.
Eamon hopes to gather data on a bigger level. Where do these birds spend their winters? What routes are these birds taking during migration? In which habitats are they breeding? Initial tracking data shows that at least some birds are migrating to the Ciénaga de Santa Clara, the last great remaining wetland in the Colorado River Delta, just across the border in Mexico. Other birds seem to be moving much further south and spending their winters on Mexico’s coasts.
Studying migration routes can help us better manage and protect these habitats as well as better understand the dangers Yuma Ridgway’s Rails face.